Life Without Water

Which is more valuable: diamonds or water? It’s clear to me. Water is the perfect product. It is endlessly useful, cheap, simple, ubiquitous, and beautiful. Water is essential to all forms of life and is used in every industry, not to mention its calming presence. As our species continues to shape the planet I find it increasingly important that we take pains to conserve the purity of this critical chemical. This is why, when my friend George McGraw of digdeepwater.org invited me to take the 4 Liter challenge I jumped at the chance.

The rules are simple. Do not use more than 4 liters of water per day. I also decided to track ‘virtual’ water usage. That is, be mindful of the water used to produce a good that is used, in addition to water used directly. Given that a single toilet flush takes over 6L of water, and the cotton in a pair of jeans takes about 7000L to grow, some changes to my life were clearly in order.

Hygiene

I awake the morning of the challenge and throw off my cotton sheets with disgust. From this moment on every drop counts. I brush my teeth without water and put on dry deodorant. Relieving myself in the toilet is not an option. For a moment I consider following Clinton’s advice: “if it’s yellow let it mellow”, but decide to go full Bukowski instead: “sometimes you just have to piss in the sink”. Could we engineer more efficient kidneys?

For number two I had to plan in advance. Inadequate sanitation is an enormous quality of life problem globally. The most popular toilet in the world is no toilet at all as 4 in 10 people in the world defecate in the open. Flush toilets use enormous quantities of water so I needed a way to make it unnecessary.

Feces are almost entirely deceased gut bacteria and water. I massacred my gut bacteria the day before by consuming a DIY Soylent version with no fiber and taking 500mg of Rifaximin, an antibiotic with poor bioavailability, meaning it stays in your gut and kills bacteria. Soylent’s microbiome consultant advised that this is a terrible idea so I do not recommend it. However, it worked. Throughout the challenge I did not defecate.

In lieu of showering I sprayed myself with AOBiome’s custom skin bacteria blend. Body odor is caused by the emissions of proliferating skin bacteria, as unique as a fingerprint. The Nitrosomonas eutropha taking over my skin now metabolizes ammonia into odorless nitrite and nitric oxide. Success! I wish I had a strain that excreted lipases, as my hair was still greasy.

Direct water usage: 0L

Virtual water usage: 0L

Clothing

My standard outfit is mostly cotton, which takes 20,000L of water per kg so I had to improvise. I did some research and settled on Nomex, a meta-aramid invented by DuPont in the 1960’s. Nomex is a fantastic material used in applications as diverse as circuit boards, loudspeakers, and clothing. Made via condensation from m-phenylenediamine and isophthaloyl chloride, its production uses no water. I found a Nomex flight suit on Alibaba and added a “Soylent” patch. I love it. It’s cheap, simple, comfortable, and fireproof, just in case. I also did no laundry of course, which would have used 170L.

Direct water usage: 0L

Virtual water usage: 0L

Food

There are some species that never drink water. They obtain it from the food they eat, or synthesize it biochemically. Humans only synthesize about 10% of their water needs which means I’ll need to drink some. I also need food, the production and distribution of which is the single largest burden on the water system by a mile. Agriculture constitutes 80-90% of the water used in the United States. A mere kg of red meat takes 15,415L of water to produce. I was a little crestfallen to learn that a single cheeseburger can outweigh using a high efficiency toilet for a year.[1][2]

To avoid this issue I consumed nothing but Soylent throughout the challenge. Soylent uses no meat or dairy and only 1.6L of water. To avoid dishes and their subsequent water usage I poured my Soylent one meal at a time in to a polystyrene cup, which takes less than 1L of water to make.[3] Soylent does not contain enough water in itself so I begrudgingly drank an additional 400ml of tap water.

If there’s anything as amazing as water it’s petroleum. My clothing and dishes take less water to make than they do to clean.

Dying to know the virtual water footprint of Soylent, we contracted an analyst at a Chicago think tank to run a study on the product. The complicated formula and numerous sources, as well as proprietary manufacturing and process information made this difficult and a bit imprecise. However, there was enough published data to end up with a conservative estimate. Rice protein was the biggest issue, given that rice is relatively water intensive to grow and is only about 10% protein by mass. Our rice processor claims they have a 0 carbon footprint and reclaim much of the water used but I couldn’t get many specifics. Not accounting for this we still ended up at 2030L per day of Soylent, which is about 50% of the virtual water footprint of the standard american diet (SAD), 4000L. Not bad. I bet we could lower it though.

Complete analysis here (criticism encouraged): https://s3.amazonaws.com/robrhinehart.com/soylent-water-footprint.xlsx

Final tally:

Direct water usage: 2L

Virtual water usage: 2031L

US Average:

Direct water usage: 1135L[4]

Virtual water usage: 7570L[5]

Conclusion

Water is the most popular beverage in the world, and still 20% of us are living without enough even to drink[6]. Our foods, our bodies, and our planet are mostly water, and yet, we are spoiling and wasting what the cosmos has made[7] at an unsustainable rate. I don’t expect anyone to live as I did during the challenge. Even I missed coffee and a hot shower. However, I do think it is important to be mindful of the network effects of one’s lifestyle. With water, as with most things, it is better to do more with less.

References

[2] http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/Animal-products

Footnote

It is possible that a substantial amount of earth’s water was synthesized by purple sulfur bacteria in the photosynthetic reaction

$\mathrm{ CO_2 + 2\ H_2S \rightarrow CH_2O + H_2O + 2\ S }$

This means we could manufacture water out of sunlight, CO2 and flatulence. What if we scaled this up?

• deggs

Polystyrene??

• CJ Lawrence

Think you need to look at http://www.aquasciences.com/ and other solutions using the same technology

• Jon Hendry

Hey, asshole, stop fucking around with antibiotics. We have problems enough with antibiotic resistance without cavalier idiocy like this.

• janeylicious

Also, this challenge is a nightmare for your body in general, please don’t do this. My dad was recently in the hospital for a severe C. diff infection following a course of antibiotics to treat a kidney infection, and that was with a short course and probiotics. Not drinking enough water (2 liters is a bit low) plus fucking around with antibiotics is not. a. joke. on so many levels. You want to deal with kidney injuries and flirt with death, be my guest. It didn’t take much for my dad’s mild case of C. diff to turn into a nightmare that fucked with his entire body at the same time.

I’d rather be donating to charity:water and considering the 4L challenge _without including drinking water_. Still quite a challenge.

• thmoonbus

Heavy antibiotics use has also been linked to Inflammatory Bowel Disorders like ulcerative colitis and chrons disease (which can be crippling and even fatal) most likely BECAUSE they mess with your gut micro-biome. This guy is a loon.

• Joe

Support Autism awareness!

Dude, you’re headed straight for the land of kidney stones. Have a spare one of my old ones, while you’re at it.

• Reality

He’ll be lucky if pissing rocks is the only negative consequence of this.

• Reality

Holy shit. The internal microbial biome is incredibly important to both digestion and health. You are a goddamn idiot and will likely suffer from significant side-effects all in the pursuit of what amounts to a Stupid Human Trick.

The fact that the Rifaximin is going to pass through your body and into the environment and fuck things up downstream is just icing on the shit-cake.

(Also, I’m pretty sure that any sane insurer would drop your health coverage in a hearbeat if they were to discover that you’re literally performing DIY medical experiments on yourself with known harmful consequences.)

• Reality

Oh, and fecal matter comprises much more than just water and bacteria. Your system needs to get rid of waste products, dead cells, etc. We are not self-contained systems with immortal cells.

• mat weldon

Its ok to criticise people’s ideas but not to insult them personally. Before you post a comment, imagine someone’s reaction if you said it to their face.

• Reality

Did you even bother to look into what would be involved with large-scale cultivation of purple bacteria, or did you just read a Wikipedia article and look at the reaction formula and call it a day? Because there are plenty of reasons why we can’t just “scale [it] up”. (For example, all of that product sulfide? What are you going to do when it oxidizes into sulfuric acid?)

• Exhaustive Destruction

Don’t you need to use a lot of water anyway to make those chemicals? I imagine the grunt work that goes into setting up shit for “m-phenylenediamine” and “isophthaloyl chloride” might be less than what’s required to grow cotton but is still substantial. Also the water for the slave labor that goes into everything else you’re using, you dipshit techie scum.

• shamama

You forgot to mention that you did this to prove to anyone who had any doubts that you’re not literally full of shit, right?

I’m sure there was a lot of water used in the production of the Soylent patch you added to your nerd-jumpsuit, but I guess you can overlook that since this whole, massive waste of time & (investor) resources was just a feeble attempt to use “science” under the guise of a publicity stunt.

The doctor who prescribed you antibiotics should have this license revoked.

• amyhoy

Packaging and shipping a high-tech jumpsuit around the globe (thanks Alibaba!) definitely doesn’t take any indirect water, not by the people who run the operations, or the cardboard, or production of the parts in the plane… Globalism is water-free, dontchaknow!

• Christian Benedict

Capitalism’s the answer to everything, kids!

• jamiebronson

Why didn’t you use a composting toilet instead of killing the essential bacteria in your intestines?

• Pirata do Cabide

If you really cared about conserving water from flushing that much you would have just used a composting toilet. Admit it, you just needed and angle to promote soylent.

• Blake Thompson

I’m always surprised by the tone of the comments on here. That someone as intelligent, thoughtful, and adventurous as yourself gets treated so poorly is a shame. It’s a shame, not just because it might be discouraging to you, but also because it might be discouraging to others similar to you. Maybe you’ve made some mistakes. That’s inevitable. What’s inspiring is that you’re not giving in to cynicism, that you have the courage to fail, and that throughout all this you rarely (if ever) give into the temptation to reflect the negativity that’s presented to you. You also seem to have a really keen sense of what science is all about. That is, that it’s not about being right – it’s about improving our lives – and that takes imagination, selfless dedication, learning to live with and be open about various kinds of uncertainty, and the courage to fail miserably if need be.

For better or worse, whether you like it or not, you’re an inspiration to me and others like myself.

Blake Thompson
Seattle University
Department of Psychology
____________________________
bbthomp@vt.edu
blake-thompson.com

• Guest

This guy took antibiotics to kill off his intestinal fauna in order to stop defecating. I think what he’s doing goes well beyond “scientific exploration” at this point.

• Reality

As a graduate student in the department of psychology, you are well versed on the consequences of killing off one’s internal microbiome, yup.

• tom dissonance

you should get better inspirations.

I agree, it’s bizarre that there’s such hostility here. This is an amazing experiment. I love this.

• Christian Benedict

This is way past ethical, Blake. No ethics committee would agree to this if this was a legitimate experiment. Even Dr. Barry J. Marshall, the doctor who drank a solution containing H. Pylori in order to prove that the bacterium causes ulcers would find this excessive.

• Christian Benedict

The objective of science as a WHOLE is to further humanity through discussion, debate and experimentation in an ethical manner, as opposed to killing the experimenters in the process. To a certain extent, Medical research must also conform to the Hippocratic Oath in order to be legitimate; otherwise, you’ll end up with a similar situation to that of medical research in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, where medical breakthroughs were achieved at an abhorrent human cost.

• btodder

And here I thought consuming petroleum was just as bad as consuming water. Rob, just how much Petrochemical is used in the manufacture of your Soylent?

• Dias

Personally, I believe the whole microbiome thing is just a shame invented to sell probiotics & yogurt. If I could completely wipe-out my gut-flora I would do it in a heartbeat. Any recommendations other than Rifaximin?

• Jonathan Smith

Hey Rob,

I don’t want to say “don’t listen to these people,” as certainly some critics will make valid points, but the vitriol that comes with those points is just amazing. Yeah, turning your body into a lab is a supremely risky endeavor, but it doesn’t warrant verbal abuse. I also have more than a few doubts that you’re doing this because you want to promote what you make. Seems more like you want to promote sustainability, no? Isn’t that a substantial part of the idea behind Soylent, for you and the rest of the developers?

Obvoiusly there’s motivation behind undertaking a huge R&D effort aimed at making your product as sustainable as humanly possible, so that motivation almost certainly extends beyond money and reaches into Rob’s personal life. I mean, I’m an anticapitalist myself and even I don’t think everything businesspeople do is because of what they sell. “Then why did corporate shill man add a Soylent patch???” Because he helped start the company and he’s proud of it and he works there. Sheesh, chill out, people.

• Let_Us_Be_Sensible

He could have taken his shit outside like a camper or bought an incinerating toilet, but instead he took — against sensible medical advice — a bunch of antibiotics to kill his gut bacteria, all to meet some arbitrary goal that does absolutely nothing worthwhile. He contributed to the very real problem of drug-resistance, probably has or will contribute to health care costs when he has to get the damage he has done to his body corrected, and all for what? He didn’t demonstrate anything of value for sustainability, didn’t show a worthwhile way to cut down on water usage.

He simply did something dangerous and bizarre to meet an arbitrary goal for a single day. I don’t think he deserves all the hatred and vitriol either, but neither should he be encouraged to do these dangerous things. He seems very autistic or mentally afflicted in some ways, and so he has both my sympathy and my encouragement…but only encouragement to listen to the sensibilities of others when they say not to do something that is dangerous.

I think the point is he thinks outside the box. It’s easy to do what everyone else does.
It’s easy to take the safe secure and well trodden bath.

It’s hard to try something new and see what happens.

I have a lot of respect for Rob.

• kaceylu

I found the entire Software Tailor team to very helpful and knowledgeable.

You help me understand the differences between the other systems on the

market and the software development HK

• LoLno

I trust soylent just a little less now…

yeah I must have trusted my instincts when I heard there is a powdered alternative for food that leaves no effects on your kidneys, digestive system etc… made by a guy who doesn’t enjoy his kidneys, digestive system, skin, etc…

• Soccerfan831

All of you seem to miss the part where he points out he did it just for the challenge and he does not suggest the action he took.

• http://v3p.tv/ zeek

This blog represents a trend of hemi-pseudoscientific pop culture. Given a little knowledge we have factually derived from the sciences, nutritionists and ecologists make a sweeping array of claims many if which have never been proven ‘true’ and , by association with valid claims, are able to draw Up a cultural product; something to buy, a lifestyle to buy into, a set of person all judgments to judge others by, that are the adopted by science and tech minded folks .

Much of what passes for ‘culuture’ of global warming and in the pop consciousness, passes into this pattern. The mix of panic and self righteousness make the product so attractive to many folks that the hemi- pseudoscientic culture even resembles religion as practiced in some group cases.

I personally like the meal replacement called soylent. But much of the associated nutritional claims are of course bogus. It is however a legit meal replacement and from my own experience tastes one hell of a lot better than the disgusting drinks found in a corporate healthcare setting such as ‘ensure’ and rite -aid style meal replacements sold in hospitals by the billions of dollars per year.

• Christian Benedict

I somewhat agree that Soylent is primarily a “Greenwashed” product, a product which claims to be manufactured with environmental preservation in mind, but only for the sake of marketing.

• mikhail

Honestly, although the styrofoam cup takes less than 1L of water to make, the overall environmental impact is far, far greater than simply using the .5 L of water or so to wash a regular reusable cup.

• Jtrdfw

Did you know thats its nearly impossible to “waste” water you retard? At least in any practical sense, like day to day living. It doesn’t disappear. Not buying a pair of jeans for its water “consumption” is idiotic. Not supporting fracking because of water elimination is smart.

• http://wingtangwong.com/ Wing Wong

Question: Why was the water consumption(virtual and direct) for the spray and antibiotic not accounted for?

• Marcus2012

Are you trolling, or are you actually this fucking dumb?

• Marcus2012

You’re going to be in your grave in the next 5 years if you keep this recklessly retarded shit up.

• http://www.jillesvangurp.com/ Jilles van Gurp

Water is not a problem. There is plenty of sea water and all it takes is a little engineering and energy to turn that into as much sweet water as humans will ever need. The fact that California is running low on water is merely the result of poor planning, lousy infrastructure, poor economics, and decades of ignoring all of that. In that sense the analogies with third world countries are uncanny. None of these things require major breakthroughs in science to solve, merely some mildly painful restructuring of how stuff works and is organized and a few more years of business as usual when it comes at chipping away at the engineering challenges around energy (solar, fusion, nuclear, wind) and desalination technology. Actually the biggest hurdles by far here are bureaucracy and complacency. If the US spent as much on fusion technology as on misguided military excursions to pieces of random desert in the middle east, we might not have this discussion at all.

Misguided attempts by wealthy people to save a tiny bit of water are basically just a drop in the ocean. You are not going to save the world through poor body hiegiene and not taking a poo: you’ll just smell really bad. You are not even contributing to solving the problem; the problem is that we need more water. The solution to that is engineering and not futile attempts to reduce water in take per person. You’d have to be epically successful to even make a single digit percent impact on overall water shortage like that, which is easily offset by even modest technical progress that can be made fixing the real problem: producing enormous quantities of sweet water.

As for soylent, sounds like a depressing thing to be stuck on. It tastes like shit and completely takes the joy out of eating actually nice things. Most sane people would probably prefer changing their fastfood habits to something genuinely nice and healthy over slurping that crap for the rest of their lifes. The fact that that is so hard, goes to show how hopeless soylent marketing is going to be.

• JM

AOBiome’s spray suspends the Nitrosomonas eutropha D23 bacterium in water. One bottle has roughly 88.7 mL of water. I’m not sure how much water the company uses to culture, and produce one full batch of their product, but that would be another thing to consider in your direct and virtual water usage.

Also, don’t be reckless with antibiotics, drug resistant bacteria is not something you want to create. If defecating, and not being able to dispose of it without using water to flush it away was an issue, you could have always dug a hole with your bare hands and did your business…

• Ionias Georgi

To fix the issues of water pollution and water usage, a overhaul of the ENTIRETY of human manufacturing and all civilization on Earth is required.

Our current system of life is insane and unwise. It will cause our own extinction if it continues to exist, therefore to ensure human survival in the future for at least another 1,000 years we must destroy it and replace it with a sane and wise version. A minority of human beings who know how to live in harmony with the planet they exist on cannot save the majority. 100% of humans must take part in a worldwide revolution of global civilization or we will fail as a species…. achieve extinction.