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How Raw Water Tries to Make Poverty Hip

A Silicon Valley phenomenon reveals the ugly side of back-to-the-earth, stripped-down lifestyle trends.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Two and a half gallons of “raw water” will cost you $36.99 at the Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, California. At Liquid Eden in San Diego, you can pay $2.50 a gallon for water free of chlorine and fluoride; the shop’s owner told The New York Times that she sells 900 gallons of water a day. Raw water is being championed by the former CEO of Juicero, the notorious Silicon Valley purveyor of juice-squeezing machines that shut down after it was revealed that its bags of juice could be squeezed just as well by hand. Raw water acolytes can also purchase Source, a roof system that collects water from the air, for $4,500. “The water from the tap just doesn’t taste quite as refreshing,” Source investor Skip Battle explained to the Times. “Now is that because I saw it come off the roof, and anything from the roof feels special? Maybe.”

Raw water may well be special, but it is not safe, as the Times concedes. Parasites thrive in unfiltered water. So do bacteria that cause deadly waterborne diseases like cholera. In September, The Guardian reported that a predominately African American region of Alabama is suffering from an outbreak of hookworm, a disease supposedly eradicated decades ago, thanks to contaminated water. When people drink untreated water, it’s usually because they have nothing else to drink.

The raw water phenomenon is related to a hubris specific to Silicon Valley. The industry’s “invention” of things that already exist is, as Abby Ohlheiser noted for The Washington Post last year, “a running theme.” In the case of raw water, however, there’s an extra dimension to the story. People who believe that unfiltered water is good for them haven’t just confused themselves into believing they’ve invented something that already exists. They’ve adopted a hardship that poor people suffer, and stripped it of its association with poverty. In the hands of a would-be juice titan like Doug Evans, raw water is a way of gentrifying that poverty.

From #vanlife to tiny houses to raw water, primitivity is in vogue. Sometimes the trends reflect actual precarity—living in a van has some appeal when you can’t afford rent, let alone a mortgage. But in practice, they are generally only available to the independently comfortable.

Consider the tiny house, which has been sold as a means to downsize one’s life. The homes seem like they should be inexpensive, and compared to, say, a condo in New York City, they are. But that doesn’t mean they’re affordable. On its website, Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses estimates the average cost of one of its homes to be $37,000, and says it’s built homes as expensive as $100,000. Cost varies further depending on the price of land where the home is to be built, and the homes have limited resale value.

The ideal owner, then, is someone who can afford land that is properly zoned for the home, and can take the potential financial losses associated with building a niche domicile that he may not be able to sell. Meanwhile, he’s hardly invented anything new. He’s building a cabin, which poor people have lived in for centuries. He can put the cabin on a trailer and transport it, wonder of wonders—thus creating a mobile home, albeit one with dormer windows and maybe a dishwasher. Poor people also already live in mobile homes, though no one applauds them for their ingenuity. As Doree Shafrir put it for BuzzFeed in 2015, “It’s not new for people to be living in RVs or mobile homes; it’s just that now there’s a new vocabulary to gentrify living in a small space.”

Poor people also live in cars, and in vans, and when they do we generally say that they are homeless or something like it. In her 2017 book Nomadland, Jessica Bruder recounts the story of Linda May, who moves into an RV when she can no longer afford her trailer. May is 60 when she buys the RV, which she calls the Squeeze Inn; it is not a retirement home but a means to an end, a way for her to travel to seasonal jobs and whatever low-wage work she can find while keeping a roof over her head. May is on trend, as Bruder documents: There have always been Americans who travel the country in vehicles that double as homes.

Click through #vanlife on Instagram, however, and you probably won’t see any people like May. You’ll see mountain vistas and fireworks and interiors that look like an Urban Outfitters on wheels; there is a lot of sponsored content, starring attractive people in their 20s and 30s. The vibe is a deliberate aesthetic choice. Pretty pictures earn endorsements from companies that want to be associated with loose-limbed wanderlust, as Vanity Fair reported in 2017. Thus the #vanlife pays for itself. If you have $129,995 to spare, you can purchase a Living Van, which contains a “bathroom spa” and something called a “Euro loft.” Presumably no one will call the owner of a Living Van “homeless.”

Poverty is a trap. The difficulty of escaping it is one of its defining features. If you are born into poverty, you are born into a cell whose bars are no less real for their invisibility. Research conducted by psychologists Michael W. Kraus and Jacinth J.X. Tan concluded that most Americans overestimated the ease of transitioning from poverty to wealth. It’s partly wishful thinking, as Eric Jaffe summarized for CityLab in 2015: “Another test found that participants were more inclined to overestimate upward advance when they were reminded of their own goals, talent, and motivation.” The higher a person sat on the social ladder, the more likely they were to believe social mobility existed.

For the wealthy, the lifestyles adopted by the poor out of necessity can function like a costume. It’s not a real step down the social ladder. If you’re rich enough, you can ditch your van or your tiny house at any time. If your raw water makes you sick, you can go to the hospital without fearing a financial hit, and when you go home, you can drink as much as clean, filtered water as you like. There are no lasting consequences, besides a lecture from a doctor and some jokes at your expense.

The problem with raw water is not that a few people with money will make themselves sick. The problem is that we’ll forget why people drink raw water in the first place. The practices of the poor aren’t defined by choices, at least not the way we typically understand them. “Take a deep breath. No matter how wealthy or poor you are, you can take a breath and own that air that you breathe. And yet water—the government brings it to you,” Source’s designer told the Times, as if the government’s presence profanes something pure. The government does not always “bring it to you,” as the people of Flint, Michigan, could tell him, and it could soon bring even less: Donald Trump’s first draft budget proposed eliminating the USDA’s water and wastewater loan and grant program for rural communities. The program survives for now, but Trump’s proposal showed that the absence of government is the real threat.

Before Marie Antoinette left her head at la Place de la Revolution, she wanted to be a peasant, temporarily and at her own pleasure. On the grounds of her personal estate, Petit Trianon, she built a semblance of a French peasant village and cavorted like she believed peasants cavorted. She wore clothing she considered rustic, and brought in farm animals to raise. Knowing nothing about animal husbandry or agriculture herself, she brought in workers, too, and so the entire operation represented a significant expense for the crown. While she played at raising food, people starved. Her workers could have told her about it, and maybe they went hungry themselves. But there’s no proof she had ever asked them, or that she had even cared to know.