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The woman wears a white flowing gown; her blond hair is loose in beachy waves. She collects water from a babbling stream, drinks, and beams. Acoustic music plays softly over the commercial for Live Spring Water, a startup that retails untreated spring water for $16 per a 2.5 gallon jug, plus delivery. Behold, Silicon Valley’s latest grand scam: raw water.
No other commodity so perfectly displays the venality of industry, the gullibility of consumers, and ever-widening global inequality as H 20. Alkaline water, gluten-free water, Smartwater, GMO-free water, bottled rainwater, crystal-infused water, reverse-osmosis water, water from mountain glaciers, water in 24-karat solid gold bottles—you can get any type of water you like these days, as long as it’s overpriced. That precious substance you use to wash your ass and swill your mouth and hydrate and flush your toilet and mop your floor has been rebranded by Big Water, and like the brain-dead consumers we are, we’re lapping it up.
It was only a matter of time before the bespectacled bros of Silicon Valley would attempt to get in on the action. After all, when you’ve driven low-income communities out of once-affordable areas, undermined democracy with the spread of fake news, and destroyed the hotel and taxi trades, what’s a bit of water racketeering added to the mix?
But disrupting water is the dumbest thing Silicon Valley has ever done, and that’s including Juicero, a startup that raised $120 million in investment to bring a $400 internet-connected juicer to market, before shutting down after customers realized they could just as easily squeeze the juice bags by hand. (Fittingly, Juicero’s founder, Doug Evans, is a huge fan of Live Spring Water, describing his experience of drinking raw water for the first time at Burning Man as “epic.”)
To the uninitiated, raw water is unfiltered, untreated water, siphoned from rivers, springs, or creeks. Raw water acolytes argue that drinking water directly from nature, without the chemicals found in tap water—chlorine for disinfecting, and fluoride to prevent tooth decay—contributes to superior health. It’s nonsense, of course. In the developed world at least, tap water is getting cleaner, although the water scandal in Flint, Michigan, understandably did much to undermine public confidence in the integrity of U.S. tap water. To date, no scientific study has demonstrated any proven health benefit from drinking untreated water.
In addition to retailing untreated spring water at a 2,133 percent markup, Live Spring Water also links to Find a Spring, a user-generated website where raw water fans can upload their favorite drinking holes. “Most public tap water supplies have toxicities including chlorine and fluoride in them… Spring water created by the earth is clearly the best solution,” notes Find a Spring’s website. “We need this website to find fresh water, because of how polluted water is becoming,” wrote one user on Live Spring’s Facebook page. (“We do not validate water safety ourselves,” reads a legal disclaimer on the site. “You take full responsibility for your decision.”)
Live Spring Water is a scam. While you may think you’re getting fresh spring water bottled by a beachy goddess in a white dress, a 2018 Men’s Health investigation revealed Live Spring Water is actually tap water from Jefferson County, Oregon, whose inhabitants happen to be served by a natural spring. The average cost per gallon of Jefferson County tap water? A third of a cent per gallon. VICE reached out to Live Spring by email for comment, but they declined an interview request, and ignored subsequent requests for comment.
This is modern life in 2020. Consumers are anxious, fretful, paranoid. We overintellectualize the most basic human functions. Not sleeping right? There’s a $249 weighted blanket for that. Feeling a little out of sorts? Perhaps your energies need realigning with the Goop $66 jade egg—it’s got a predrilled hole so you can loop a string through it for vaginal removal. Worried about the integrity of your poop? uBiome raised a total of $105 million from investors for its home poo-testing kit before collapsing in 2019 amid an FBI investigation.
It made sense that water would be next. As the Amazon is deforested and the world heats uncontrollably, what better locus for our fears than water? Water is an essential life substance; a human being will die in four days without it. A planet without water is a planet without life. If we ever colonize Mars, it will be because there’s water on it.
But the raw water trend isn’t just dumb. It’s capitalism at its most venal, exploiting health anxiety for profit at a potentially huge cost. What happens to the people who’ve internalized Live Spring’s messaging that raw water is superior, but can’t afford to purchase its overpriced but safe-to-drink product? They may grab a jug, head out to one of the springs listed on its website—none of which have been tested for water purity—fill it, and chug it down. They may take that water home to their families and serve it to children or the elderly.
This is what the internet has done to us: In 2020, we’re drinking dirty water and shunning vaccines, all because someone online told us to. In 2016, on his #RewildYourself podcast, Find a Spring’s founder, Daniel Vitalis, talked about discovering raw water. “I started thinking, Wow. The water I drink could come directly from the earth. I could make my fluid body out of something I forage from the earth. Wild water.” He said that raw water tastes wetter, and hydrates you better. That superior mouthfeel Vitalis is gushing about? It’s probably dysentery.
Drinking untreated water can lead to diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and death. The provision of clean, drinkable water is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It’s impossible to quantify how many lives have been saved through sanitation, but it’s a lot. Meanwhile, as entrepreneurs plug $16-a-gallon marked-up tap water, and raw water acolytes encourage us to guzzle from streams that may contain agricultural runoff, 2 billion people still don’t have access to clean drinking water. Poor sanitation causes 432,000 deaths from diarrhea a year.
I was spoiling for a fight with Seth Pruzansky before we spoke. But in the end, I wound up feeling sorry for him. Pruzansky is the cofounder of the Maine-based business Tourmaline Spring, which sells “raw” spring water that is safe to drink. It was a rough few months for Pruzansky and his business partner, Bryan Pullen, after the raw water scandal broke in late December 2017: They were at the sharp end of a backlash from furious consumers. “It was every entrepreneur’s greatest nightmare,” he said. “Someone made a death threat. People were saying the worst things you can imagine. ‘You guys are charlatans. You’re snake oil salespeople. You’re going to kill people.’”
Pruzansky is adamant that Tourmaline Spring isn’t part of the raw water scam. “We never advocated for people going and drinking out of a pond or a stream!” said Pruzansky, sounding pained. And it’s true that Tourmaline Spring doesn’t link to a website where people can find a nearby bog to slurp out of. But Maine tap water is safe to drink. Why should consumers pay up to $3.84 for a liter of Tourmaline Spring?
You could argue that there’s no harm done. But any product that questions the integrity of tap water, or implies that untreated water is in some way purer or superior, poisons the well. “I get the argument that if people want to buy stupid products, they should be allowed to,” said Timothy Caulfield, a science author and a professor of health law. “But I don’t totally buy it.” Caulfield is a scourge of the wellness industry. “The raw water business spreads misinformation about the nature of microbes and the value of clean water, and it’s creating suspicion about tap water and hesitancy about drinking it.”
Caulfield is vituperative about the pseudoscience underpinning the raw water trend. “I call it scienceploitation,” he said, laughing. “On the one hand, they talk about this ‘natural is better’ vibe, about how we need to return to our roots. But on the other hand, they also leverage science hype by talking about microbiomes in the water.” This messaging confuses people who are already anxious about the integrity of the food and water they consume. “They leverage the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that if something is from nature it’s inherently better, and they also leverage fearmongering. That kind of negative messaging can be powerful, and persuasive.”
So, what would actually disrupting water look like? Creating sustainable potable water sources in developing countries would be a good start. Scientists have high hopes that desalination technologies, which remove the salt from seawater, will help combat climate-change-induced water stress in years to come. Many Middle Eastern countries, like Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, already rely on desalination for most of their water supply, but it’s not as heavily embraced in other parts of the world. “There’s an urgent need for technologies that can deliver fresh water for irrigation and drinking purposes,” said Matthew Suss, a desalination expert and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
As the globe heats hotter and harder, the need for genuinely disruptive technologies is more urgent than ever. A hard rain’s going to fall. Can we innovate our way ahead of it? Maybe. But true disruption won’t come with you on your hands and knees, drinking out of a pond.