The belief that “natural” is better has animated many food and health trends in recent memory, with natural as a shorthand denoting purity, a lack of processing, or rejection of modern medicine: raw foodism, enthusiasm for raw dairy, the paleo diet, and organic evangelism. Next up: “raw water.”
The raw water trend takes naturalness to its extreme: Proponents boast that it comes from “off the grid,” celebrating its freedom from government taint. Cody Friesen, CEO of Zero Mass Water, which is marketed not as raw water but as “pure water,” disparages municipal water. His $4,500 Source system draws water from the air we all breathe. (Raw water comes from pristine springs.)* As reported to the New York Times, “The goal, Mr. Friesen said, is to make water ‘that’s ultra high quality and secure, totally disconnected from all infrastructure.’ ”
There are so many things that are obnoxious about the raw water trend that it seems entirely possible that it is in fact the most obnoxious Silicon Valley disruption project yet. It’s instructive to go beyond the gut-level reaction against raw water to consider exactly why it’s so frustrating.
There’s the greed. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have found a way to market drinking water up to $36.99 for a 2½-gallon bottle and refills for $14.99—that’s about 30 times the cost of regular bottled water, which itself costs between 300 and 2,000 times the cost of municipal drinking water. Essentially, they’ve turned one of the requirements for sustaining life into a lucrative commodity and luxury good. Live Water founder Mukhande Singh (né Christopher Sanborn) sells his product through delivery service and in natural food stores like the Rainbow co-op in San Francisco, where Live Water is frequently sold out.* Other vendors, like Liquid Eden in San Diego, capitalize on the “water consciousness movement” to the tune of 900 gallons a day in sales.
Then there’s the stupidity. Raw water enthusiasts trespass on private land, at night, to harvest from secret springs. These people are not only risking legal consequences, they’re risking contracting a bacterial infection or parasite, as physicians and public health experts have warned. This water fetching trades on fantasies about an environment that doesn’t exist and nostalgia for water purity that never existed. Spring water is not necessarily free of elements that harm health. All water sources are part of the environment and are not isolated from “industrial age contamination,” as described by the Live Water guys. The idea that Americans drank abundant pristine water before the industrial age, in the first half of the 19th century and earlier, is not supported by the historical record. There is a reason that everyone including children drank so much hard cider and beer during the 1700s and 1800s: because waterborne illness was prevalent, and alcoholic beverages were safer than many sources of “raw water.” This was especially true in proximity to towns whose water sources and sewage systems were not well differentiated.
And then there’s the bad science. Like erroneous claims that drinking fresh juice cleanses the body of toxins, claims about the healthfulness of untreated water are based on belief rather than evidence. Raw water purveyors either lack the scientific literacy to interpret the available research or intentionally misrepresent science to support health claims about their product. The Live Water website cites an inconclusive study to support its claim that “raw spring water has vast healing abilities.” The linked journal article claims that there is a correlation (which is not causation, as the saying goes) between the skin-regenerating effects of topical application of water from Italy’s Comano spring and the presence of nonpathogenic bacteria in the water. No untreated water was consumed by anyone in the course of this study.
But what’s most obnoxious about this phenomenon is its misanthropy. Most infuriating of all is perhaps how the raw water movement underscores the increasing realization that tech-bro Silicon Valley fetishists have abandoned the rest of society.
It is not hard to see how twisted it is for a group of privileged people with access to safe municipal drinking water to spurn it in favor of something more dangerous when people in largely black and poor Flint, Michigan, are being poisoned with lead and people in largely black rural Alabama are contracting hookworm from untreated water. By claiming that tap water is “toilet water with birth control drugs,” that fluoride is a “mind control drug,” and that treated water lacks probiotics supposedly present in untreated water, purveyors of “raw water” incite mistrust in municipal water safety—in places where the water has been proven safe to drink, no less—and perpetuate cynicism about regulations that protect public health. (Conversely, when people making fun of raw water frame all untreated water as giardia juice, they betray their ignorance about the number of Americans living in rural areas who get their water from perfectly adequate wells.)
The raw water trend is consistent with other asocial behaviors by venture capitalists using their wealth to eschew civic responsibility and insulate themselves from social problems. If raw water evangelists actually think treated water is poisoned by fluoride and prescription drugs, that water safety is threatened by industrial pollution, and that a lack of good bacteria found in our water is really a significant cause of malnourishment, then they ought to be moved to activism on what should be understood as a matter of civil and human rights. Instead, they’ve created expensive untreated bottled water, a market solution and form of conspicuous consumption. The raw water movement doesn’t only reveal how gullible and unscientific this community is—it also secures its place as our modern-day moneyed overlords who care little about the serfs down below.
*Correction, Jan. 8, 2018: This story originally misstated that Doug Evans is the CEO of Live Water. He is just a customer. (Return.)
*Update, Jan. 8, 2018: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that Zero Mass Water, which collects its water from water vapor using a $4,500 system, does not consider itself part of the raw water movement. (Return.)