For the month of June, I stayed in the Peruvian Amazon, and from a hammock I watched the sun rise and fall.
I also ate very little during that month, probably losing a solid fifteen or more pounds (I’m 5’9 at 150, so being 135 or less was a jarring experience for me.) But in eating so little during that month, I thought a lot about food, the commoditization of food, the role it plays in our lives, what we’ve done to it and what we’re doing with it.
So naturally I thought a lot about meal-replacement shakes, which I am now forever calling “Gloop.”
Bear with me, here.
Why did I think about meal-replacement shakes, of all things? Not because I craved them — I craved a hell of a lot of other things in that month — but because I was thinking about its existence as an industry. Being away from the West, I began to find the whole thing absurd.
Here’s why we “need” Gloop:
- We waste a ton of food. A third of global food production is thrown away annually and countries in North America and Europe waste more than 220 million tons of food (same site). Gloop powder takes a year to go bad in an unopened package and six months in an opened package. So food waste with Gloop is unlikely.
- It meets all of our essential nutrients if you drink 3 or 4 servings a day, depending on the brand. Nutritional micro-deficiencies in the US and elsewhere are rampant, which probably affects the economy an untold amount, along with people’s health and happiness.
- It’s pretty cheap. A single serving of Gloop can cost, after a short look-through, anywhere from $2.00 to $2.50. How much does going out cost? And the effort of shopping, figuring out what to make, dealing with processed frozen foods, fast food? Exactly. So it’s a step up.
- Gloop is made from pretty high-quality ingredients (so it seems). Again, better than frozen and processed and shit foods, which we eat a ton of: The fast food industry is $200 billion a year in the US alone as of 2015, and frozen specialty food is roughly $19 billion as of 2016. The total estimated spending in the US on food, based on some rough math using this site ($6,759/person spent on food/year times 350 million people in the US), is roughly $2.3 trillion annually. So at least 10 cents of every dollar is spent on poor-quality food, and it’s certainly more than that.
- Lots of us are busy. Nobody “has time” to cook anymore. If you don’t work at a top tech company like Facebook or Google that makes you gourmet meals, you have to make your own or pay out-of-pocket for bad corporate cafeteria food. So Gloop fills that gap in for upper-middle-class and middle-class people who want to save their time and money.
Gloop, in short, has a pretty wide market. It can get the ultra-busy business-people (who I bet its sellers hope to capture to gain momentum), and then spread to lower-income people who need help with their nutrition and financial management. Sounds great, right?
I want to share another story.
In the nineties, two-way pagers and cellphones came out. The businessmen were all about them. They’d lug around cellphones the size of briefcases, then they’d buy phones you could have in your car and have two pagers on their hips (one for work and one for home obviously), and then these devices reached the masses and they stopped being status symbols for wealth and privilege and importance.
What’s happened since the masses adopted screens and phones? Some good things, sure. Also, kids don’t know how to connect and socialize with one another. There’s a link between screen time and depression and suicide in teens. Millennials are having less sex than any other generation, in my opinion due partly to pornography’s influence, which people watched over five billion hours of in 2018 alone. That’s at least 3 times longer than Homo sapiens have been on Earth. (Not to mention how many divorces seem to be happening because of porn.) Going up to people in bars or coffee shops and just talking is “weird.” In 1985, most people said they had 3 close friends. In 2004 the most common number of close friends people have is zero.
And what do rich people do now to counter this? They put their screens away. They put their kids in Montessori schools, schools that don’t allow technology in their classrooms. They talk about the power of the liberal arts education, an education that’s existed since before Alexander the Great, thousands of years ago. Mindfulness is now a billion dollar industry and growing because of the way screens render people less present, less connected to the world.
So let’s reason by analogy here, since the scaling of luxury goods seems to follow a consistent pattern. Gloop hits mass market adoption. Boutique Gloop comes out. You get your favorite flavors and even texture with nutrition that fits your body’s dietary needs so you’re always performing “optimally.” Hurrah.
And what will the wealthy do in this case? They’re going to continue eating real fucking food.
Let’s play this world out, since so much of it is already falling into place. Gloop reaches saturation point. The average person wakes up, works at their independent-contractor part-time not-secure jobs that might pay them different amounts every day and week. They’ll survive off of nutritionally-matched shakes that come in one of twelve thousand flavors. Meanwhile they’ll endlessly swipe right to meet someone in a similarly precarious position over $4 coffee so they can go back and have sex a few times and maybe share their precarious position together. When they have bad thoughts about where they are, they’ll watch Netflix, Hulu, Porn, and Youtube. And meanwhile the wealthy will eat real food, have real connection, have meaningful sex, experience job security, and meet people spontaneously and easily in their gated or private communities.
Something is wrong with this image, friends. Something’s wrong with the idea of a population eating Gloop, living paycheck-to-paycheck, being numbed with endless stimuli. This, it seems to me, is commoditization’s bad side. It makes valuable things common, lowering their value. It makes arguably superfluous things essential and foundational, leaving (as a result of time constraints) essential, priceless experiences on the periphery. Then it charges a premium on the priceless experiences that are the actual rights and entitlements of every human being on earth.
We can do better. It’s up to us to think about ways around this problem that are not inherently/necessarily economic solutions. We owe it to ourselves to think out-of-the-box, so that we’re not endlessly creating products and “solutions” in the name of “innovation,” which really just means “new shit.” I want us to create better shit, not just new shit. And that means refusing to run in place.
Damn, it’s good to be back.