Inventor of Soylent Lives a Minimalist, Off-Grid Lifestyle in L.A. Is He Nuts?

Rob Rhinehart, inventor of Soylent, eats differently and lives differently. Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

A lot of people think Rob Rhinehart is nuts. He’s the electrical engineer who cooked up Soylent, the dreadfully named “nutritionally balanced” substitute for a meal. And after reading his latest manifesto about his lifestyle, some think he's gone off the deep end. Annalee Newitz at Gizmodo thinks he’s “trying to turn himself into some sort of creepy nerd messiah.” I think he's on to something.

Rhinehart is trying to live an extremely low-energy lifestyle, weaning himself from dependence on the alternating current electrical grid. He notes correctly that power generation is a huge producer of greenhouse gases, that it's not very efficient or resilient. He asks the same question I ask all the time: “Instead of ever increasing our energy production, what if we focused instead on reducing our consumption?”

Which is what he does — and being the kind of guy who can live on Soylent, you know that his methods are going to be extreme. First of all, he sets up a little off-grid solar power system with a single lead-acid battery and a 100-watt solar panel. This holds 420 Wh, (Watt Hours, which you divide by the consumption of all the stuff you own. So a 100-watt light bulb will run for 4.2 hours). That is a teensy system, so he has to seriously trim on the demand side. Of course, the first thing to go is the kitchen, because he eats Soylent at home. He writes in his manifesto, How I Gave Up Alternating Current:

Kitchens are expensive and dirty. This home manufacturing centre has been by far the most liberating to eliminate. They are the greediest consumers of power, water, and labor and produce the most noise and garbage of any room. Moreover, they can be made totally unnecessary with a few practical life hacks.

He drinks red wine instead of beer (no refrigeration needed) and has a little camping butane stove for coffee and tea. I'm not sure the butane stove, which uses a disposable tank of compressed gas, is the greenest way to go, but it's a reasonable off-grid solution. I don't entirely agree with Rhinehart’s approach to transportation, but there is some logic to it; he likes public transit but now that he can afford it, he takes Uber. This definitely has less impact than owning a car. (No mention of bikes, which is a hole in his logic). And any urbanist would agree with this:

The streets were originally made for people. The automobile’s takeover has destroyed more than millions of lives (cars have killed far more Americans than war and AIDS combined), it has trampled the prime conduit of community in our cities and exiled us to the indoors to sit in front of televisions. I hope the next generation of transportation technologies will give us back the streets.

One can’t argue with his approach to home computing either. He has to run his computer off his solar system, so he uses one of the new low-power Intel NUC computers and a pair of USB powered monitors. Or how he deals with climate — “open the window and live with it” — or lighting — RGB LEDs like my Philips Hue bulbs, rewired to run directly on 12 V DC power — and entertainment:

I am blessed with nice weather, a nice view, and a full bookcase so see no need for a noisy, unsightly television, a black hole that living rooms arrange themselves around like an altar. I prefer to read, study, code, or go for a walk to one of several parks in my neighborhood.

So far so good; this is an admirable lifestyle, if a bit austere. About the only thing I really disagree with him on is clothing; Rhinehart writes:

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me.... Thanks to synthetic fabrics it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.

I suppose if you travel in air-conditioned Uber cars and don’t sweat much you can get by with “a few new T-shirts and jeans per month.” But I think his math and logic are wrong here. Rhinehart dreams of living in a space colony, but here on Earth:

For now though, as I am driven through the gleaming city, my hunger peacefully at bay, I have visions of the parking lots and grocery stores replaced by parks and community centers, power plants retrofitted as museums and galleries. Traffic and trash and pollution will evaporate, if only we are willing to adapt some routines.

OK, I like real food, I think bikes are better than Uber and that he's wrong about the clothing. But the principle of cutting our consumption and living with less is totally reasonable. His vision of the city is admirable. Yet commenters call him delusional, a clinical narcissist, and many other things that shouldn't be repeated on a family friendly blog. Newitz is vicious:

It’s all based on what every successful cult has as its foundation: a deeply-felt wish to make the world better, coupled with an equally fervent desire to be completely superior to everyone else. Just follow Rhinehart’s instructions, and you can be cleaner, smarter, and more special. Even better: you’ll be closer to the future, just the way hermit monks were once closer to their gods.

Yet all over America, people are trying to break out of the cycle of consumption, looking at tiny homes and going off grid and cutting the cord. Some people are trying to live without fridges too.

Rob Rhinehart carries it to an extreme, but his goal was to live without the luxury of alternating current and he succeeds. I think that’s admirable, not nuts.

What do you think? Visionary or nuts? Or a bit of both? Click on our survey here.

Related in MNN: