Monthly Archives: August 2014

Soylent is Not Made From People – But It Still Looks Terrible

Eat Up!

One of the putative benefits of Soylent, the brand new food substitute getting coverage in the NYTimes, Slate, and so on, is its environmental impact.  Soylent is a nutritional drink, designed in 2013 by wunderkind and tech advocate Rob Rhinehart to solve the problems associated with food.  In short, it takes too long to prepare, is too expensive, and takes too long to consume.  In the video below, Rhinehart explains in more detail what Soylent is all about:

Soylent solves all of that.  It provides (in theory) all the necessary nutrition you need in an easy-to-make drink for (potentially) less than the price of eating out or cooking yourself.  Since it can be stored, it contributes to less waste; it does not require as much carbon emissions per milligram of protein as, say, factory-produced beef; and can be produced with all-organic ingredients.  Environmentally speaking, what’s not to love?

And yet, I can’t quite get behind it.  For one, what we eat is not simply dictated by necessity, but is a part of and influenced by our culture.  We eat not just to input energy into a machine, but because the act of eating affects our mood – we place different signifiers on things like spiciness, texture, and so on.  While Soylent is customizable, it’s not clear that it would ever approach the diversity of human gastronomy.

And, c’mon, what kind of a psycho would willingly replace this with Soylent?:


Second, I’m not convinced that Soylent is necessarily always the cheaper option for everyone.  It may be only $3 per package, but that’s substantially more than it costs to make a pot of rice and beans (baller, if you do it right), or to buy an order of koshari in Cairo.

Finally, while Soylent’s claims to promote a good environmental impact are somewhat admirable, the environmental problems it putatively addresses can and should be addressed by other means.  Why do we allow factory farms to overproduce poorly managed cattle and butcher them in appalling conditions?  Why do we allow agricultural producers to mass clear land and plant monocrops?  Why do we have all of this food waste, and over-processed crap?

Ultimately, Soylent seems like another unnecessarily hi-tech solution based on consuming our way out of problems we created by consumption.  It speaks more to something gone horribly wrong in our society: so many people feel so hammered by time and life constraints that even the act of eating has become one more thing to shove aside in the mad dash to… wherever.

We’ve Forgotten How to Use Weeds

Ironically, Mint is a Weed

I was looking at my pretty unorganized garden – weeds growing wild, absolutely no organization – and feeling pretty grateful that I could still harvest some good from it.  Got some beets up in there, corn coming in good, tons of herbs – basil, oregano, cilantro, mint – represent.  Even got a pumpkin or two coming through.  All the spinach died though, so sad.

Then I started thinking about how we, in the modern world, have absolutely no idea about how to use native plants in agriculture.  Think about it.  Modern agriculture is characterized largely by monoculture farming, which depends on replacing acres and acres of native crops with one species, which then becomes highly vulnerable to pests, disease, and so on.  In order to mitigate against that, we use tons of chemical pesticides and herbicides like atrazine, which leaches toxins into our environment.

But what if we remembered how to use native plants in the way that the First Nations did?  What if we didn’t create an agricultural system that depended on erasing natural biodiversity, and imposing artificial and naturally unsustainable systems on top?  To get a picture of what this would look like, read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark Plotkin.

Here’s a sample, where the author and his indigenous friends, Kamainja and Shafee were walking near the border of Brazil, to encounter a Brazilian peasant vegetable garden:

…Kamainja snickered.  “Pananakiri poy-deh-ken!” he said slowly.  “White man dumb!

“What’s so funny?” I asked quietly.

“Look at that garden,” Kamainja whispered.  “I’ve seen better-looking agriculture inside a leafcutter ant’s nest!” …

“Look at the weeds!” Shafee chimed in.

“I don’t see any,” I said.

“Exactly!  In our gardens, we always leave some behind because it binds the soil in the rainy season. That peasant’s garden is probably cleaner than his house!”

“And another thing,” said Kamainja.  “You look at that plantation and you know the man doesn’t understand the forest.  A well-planned garden should look like a hole in the forest opened up when a gian ku-mah-kah tree falls over.  Small opening in the forest are filled in by fast-growing weedy plants that attract game animals.  When you cut down too much forest, the little plants can’t seed in from the surrounding jungle…”

What a pity we’ve managed to lose all this knowledge.

A Biosphere That Works

Serenity and Public Use

I mentioned the failed attempt by Vermont and New York to establish a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the really remarkable (and international!) Lake Champlain area.  What makes this failure sting even more (to me, anyway) is the fact that right across the border, Quebec has one of Canada’s first recognized Biosphere Reserves at Mont St Hilaire.

A great place to visit – I took my class there in Fall of 2012 – it offers both academic insight and relaxation.  It’s managed by McGill University, and if you want to take a trip there, the staff has been, in my experience anyway, very helpful and informative.  Go there!  You might learn something.

Admittedly, the stereotype about Canadians is that they’re polite and non-confrontational, so the skeptic might say, “well why wouldn’t they be more likely to adopt a UNESCO Biosphere designation?”  And true, unlike New York and Vermont, Canada did not have to deal with cross-cutting jurisdictions in setting it up.  However, like anywhere else, establishing rules about access and use in the Reserve did create some tensions with surrounding communities and the city of Mont St. Hilaire.  In order to keep the Biosphere designation, the managers at McGill and the City had to agree to ban logging and extractive activities in the core, and limit foot traffic.

However, as this report shows, regulatory limits plus consistent outreach has led to, at the very least, a modus vivendi between the Reserve and the surrounding communities.  One hopes that the efforts of local groups like the Lake Champlain Committee can do as good of a job at convincing actors here of the environmental and cultural importance of our own potential Biosphere Reserve.

In Search of a Socialist Lorax

He Speaks for the Trees

I just read The Lorax to my kids again (and did funny voices to boot, which made my wife visibly cringe).  Everytime I do, however, I think about this really stellar and well-written article by Maniates called “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?”

The article itself – very accessible, especially for an academic piece – gives a great description of an underlying problem in an otherwise sweet little book.  (And I specifically set up storytime with this book to encourage the kids to take care of the earth).  The short version (read the whole thing!) is that Seuss’ fable presents the solution to environmental crises as occurring through the aggregate of individual action.  In other words, if committed people can motivate themselves to plant trees, take care of them, and make the right purchases, the world will get better.  Noticeably absent from Seuss’ tale, however, are things like polluter pays laws, and regulations that would have stopped the Once-ler from destroying the Truffula forest in the first place – or at least held him legally and financially responsible after he did.

Not picking on Seuss, though.  It’s a nice book.  But we should be aware that individual action, especially in a market economy, will only have very limited effect on systematic environmental and political problems.  In the meantime, enjoy the video: