“If there is no incentive to move people in the direction of healthier ecosystems, there’s not going to be the change we need. No carrot, no change!”
This is Dr. Rajesh Laghari. Over Skype, he’s telling me how for the past ten years he’s been researching and implementing ways in which economics can help society rather than the market; although an academic, Dr. Laghari favors action. More recently, he’s been one of the minds behind the CDRMX project, a real attempt—if there ever was one—to not only save Mexico City from a major ecological catastrophe, but do so while helping its citizens live a more just existence. The project is nothing short of tentacular and feels too good to be true—like someone managed to hack the universe and align its stars. In two days I’m meeting with Dr. Laghari in Teuhtli, one of the first fully-functioning CDRMX communities. At the core of CDRMX is an environmental emergency: Lake Texcoco, over which Mexico City was built, is now almost entirely covered by concrete. The city’s urban planning is hijacked by DIY settlements built haphazardly, conglomerating into what locals call Colonias Populares. The former lake now serves as both a giant pool of water and a sewer to the 25 million souls dwelling above and, as if that wasn’t enough, the whole city is slowly sinking into its depths A strikingly idealistic endeavor, CDRMX is the result of improbable public-private partnerships: backed on a whim by rocketeering tycoon Elon Musk, the project brings Space X’s research in habitat 3D-printing for Mars (the red planet being known for intense seismic activity) to earth, through districts printed on the banks of Mexico City’s lake (also known for intense seismic activity). Now at Benito Juárez International, I’m zombified by a sleepless, crowded trip no amount of Marvel-on-Ambien could knock me out of. But it’s kicking in now, and I’m praying the happy fella wagging a hand at me is Emilio, my cab driver. Between honks, I probe Emilio to hear what he thinks of CDRMX. “I think it’s nice. I’ve applied for residency with my family—we have 6 kids, man, it’s tough. They say the application can take 8 months, but if you’re in a priority area it can be half that.” Emilio and his wife live in Culhuacan, one of the first areas scheduled for relocation. “My cousin is already there, she says it’s great. But for us it’s been almost a year, they say they need more time to print the houses, and now there are trucks everywhere here, they started removing empty buildings. It’s too noisy, man.” Part of his district has already been relocated to Xitle, one of the many volcanoes surrounding the city. CDRMX’s lake-centric vision is two-part: to resettle on the hillsides where seismic tremors are far less damaging than on the muddy grounds of the lake, and tear down existing buildings to retrieve some of the lakebed. If this isn’t done, experts say, the city will suffocate. The first step in this ambitious plan was to remove the already half-built airport, converted instead into the Parque Ecológico Texcoco. As we pass the Xochimilco area, Emilio explains “you know, the impreso we’re going to now, that’s where the folks from around here got moved. It was a special case, because this is World Heritage: the last remaining Aztec floating gardens, man.” All I can see from the car are a bunch of tiny colorful boats filled to the brim with people, blasting summer hits. “They’re trajineras. Today is holiday, the only people not drunk are the people selling drinks.” The road starts winding uphill as we near Milpa Alta, and soon enough I see it, shining in the afternoon sun: a block of polymer flanking the hillside of Volcán Teuhtli, as if carved directly into the rock. “They’re printing it all in one go”, Emilio boasts as if he did it himself. The guesthouse is a three-storey block overlooking what has become the new district’s central square. Most houses are printed low, and often one’s rooftop is another’s terrace. The first thing that strikes me is how dense the settlement is, and yet how much space there seems to be—it doesn’t hurt that the view of the valley is simply breathtaking, and that a gentle breeze flows down from over the hill, dispersing the city smog. At the reception, a bulletin board describes the participative nature of the accommodation: over 300 citizens chipped in to make it happen, and a core team of seven take turns at the desk and cleaning rooms. The holiday celebrations are topped with another event: the arrival of a new group of citizens from the Tláhuac district. A gathering is organized in the townhall, a large building with a single floor and a single room—who said open-space is dead? There the evening unfolds, half-ceremony half-tutorial, and in between two canapé breaks the new load of residents discovers the well-oiled introductory spiel to CDRMX. “You’re in a space that functions with universal income.” Dr Laghari, clad in the project’s red attire, is speaking with emotion “Mexicoin is not just free money.” For anyone with any grasp of Universal Basic Income and cryptocurrencies, consider mixing the two: their sum is on a whole other level than their parts. La Renta, as it is called, grants 1500 Mexicoins (yes, that’s the name of the nifty currency devised by CDRMX) to all adults and 500 for children, deposited into a digital wallet—la Cuenta—at the start of each month. If anything is left when the month is over: it is lost, unless either invested in Proyectos— local participative projects which will offer rewards in nature once fully funded—or saved in a strongly devaluating savings account: los Ahorros. Dr. Rajesh Laghari, whom I finally meet over a local beer after his speech, elaborates: “It’s a system designed to incentivize a local participative economy. Sure, you can just dump all that’s left over in Los Ahorros, but you’ll lose a lot over time. That devaluation funds public services so, in a way, you’re still investing. But the very best is picking projects you want to support and investing in them. Support the local food farms. Support the cultural projects. You’ll get weekly fruit baskets or movie tickets in return. You’ll reduce your expenses next month and be able to invest more, reduce expenses more, invest more, and all this in a virtuous cycle of participative economy!” His enthusiasm seems shared by all attending, and I can’t find anyone willing to talk trash on the project. But then again, I’m at the town hall—time to leave the beaten path and see if there’s any dirt begging to be dug. A morning spent thirsting for a flip side to the Mexicoin leaves me with a strange feeling, and a dry mouth. It’s either well hidden, or the concept of universal income really does wonders here. Sure, there are those you’d expect to do jack all with their days, giving in to a brand of hedonism made of mezcals in the sun and ball games—we’ll get to that later. But, despite being free from the contingencies of employed life, most people seem to value productive vocations that complement their Renta or contribute to solidarity projects. But it doesn’t take much digging for shadowy patches to come to light. As I go through my pocket to pay for a (reaaaaally expensive) mandarin juice, I wonder if anything prevents me from turning my personal income in pesos into a wealth of Mexicoins. So I ask Dr Laghari who confirms: “sure, outside influence could destabilize the system, and things like that have happened; we know mafias are lurking around the impresos.” I seem to have reached a touchy spot. After a pause, the doctor shrugs: “we want to avoid becoming yet another money-laundering machine and for that, outside currency is heavily taxed.” Come the afternoon, the guesthouse staff was kind enough to arrange a meeting with Miguel, a local farmer whose business they supported and who now produces most of the food served at the hotel restaurant. “He has something to say,” they tell me. And indeed, Miguel is the talkative type. “Life is a lot different, and some have serious problems adapting. It’s a shift, you know. A big one. Planning, it’s not for everybody, it’s gonna leave some behind. Compared to before, hmm… well, I’ve been here a while. I was one of the very first to relocate. Before, I had my garden on the chinampas down in Xochimilco. Of course I can’t recreate that here but there are other perks. Spring water for a start. Fresh air. And I do the work for fun, not for a living. But it breaks my heart knowing my family home was torn down. My grandpa built it and poof, nothing left. Only memories, some pictures. And it’s too late to have it scanned and reprinted, like the new residents do.” Miguel interrupts his story and gently pushes me to the side of the road. Just as I’m about to delve into the topic of safety among residents, a somewhat phallic-looking green construction machine slowly reels itself by. “Oh jajaja, that’s the cactus” laughs Miguel, as if I were to be reassured by the statement. The machine emits a soft hum. “That’s the thing that prints it all here.” Back to the story. Security? Things are looking up in Miguel’s opinion, now that everyone has a roof over their head and food on their plate. Sure rivalries exist, but the impresos have found their catharsis: Cryptoball. Seeing my eyes widen, Miguel explains: “it started as a way to gamble for a chance to transfer the Renta from one month to the next. Because you can’t keep it anyway, right? So, people would send leftover Mexicoins to a ball-shaped wallet type thing hidden somewhere. It’d boot at midnight on the new month, and whoever holds it gets the Mexicoins flowing straight to their Cuenta, until someone else catches it or it dries out. Long story short: that got intense, banned, played anyway, regulated, and now it’s transformed into a real sport with arenas and teams for each impreso. But the Renta, it’s not enough for athletes, so we support them! I’m investing 200 a month, easy, to see my team grow. And since I’m an axolotl farmer, I also contribute my signature regenerative smoothies!” Already back on the plane, I notice a stain on my souvenir ‘impreso impresionante’ t‑shirt, just when the magic starts wearing off. How long before this printed socialist haven becomes nothing more than a tourist attraction? Thinking of all the failed attempts at universal basic income elsewhere, does Mexico City have something others didn’t? Or will it too, hit a hidden reef? Clearly, the project is thought through—the people behind it seem sincere, and the residents happy. Yet I struggle to imagine CDRMX standing the test of time on such literal and metaphoric shaky grounds. Ironically, the movie selection on my flight has a documentary on Tenochtitlan and the history of the Aztec empire. Maybe the key to a successful social system lies within the ancient roots of lake Texcoco’s residents?
Pedrupes921: Yeah well. I tried getting on the program but no dice. Seems I’ll have to wait three years.
Mattias_Kelper: I’m amazed that this project functions, but I seriously doubt it will save the city from the pending environmental crisis. Well, at least it’s that many houses that won’t sink in the lake!
TheChosenJuan: Ladera Guerrera! Cryptocryptocryptobaaaaaaall go go go!
Chingondelamuerte: @Pedrupes921 It’s possible to get assigned earlier by getting a postbox in one of the areas currently elected for immediate relocation. My sister did it.
JunkyardPanda: @Chingondelamuerte I wouldn’t say it too loud, she can probably still get kicked out of the program and never be able to get back on it if they find out.
Bubudobu: Yeah yeah I’ve tried the smoothies they taste like snot.
[ooo<>ooo]: @TheChosenJuan We all know Bosque Dos will kick your hillbilly asses! Boooooooooooosque dos!
The CDRMX project, the Mexicoin and Rajesh Laghari are all fictions imagined by N O R M A L S for a conference and workshop on the future of Mexico City held at LabCDMX in December 2017. Any resemblance with existing events would be really amazing.