Between today and Sunday, Mexicans will be able to vote in a public referendum on whether to cancel the construction of a new airport for Mexico City or allow it to proceed. The (admittedly shambolic) referendum is organized by the incoming government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador who promised to cancel the airport during his campaign but has since acceded to allow the public to settle the matter instead. But why cancel the largest infrastructure project in modern Mexican history? Well, it just so happens that the airport is being built on what’s left of Lake Texcoco, the only surviving wetland in the Mexico City metro area. It is an area prone to flooding, earthquakes, and sinking. But beyond that, it also sits on top of one of the largest aquifers in the region, one that supplies millions of people in the surrounding suburbs with fresh water.
Of course, being that most of those millions of people happen to be from poor and working class households means that their opinion on the matter had little influence on the current government when it drew up its plans. And well, the wetlands themselves have been largely abandoned, a giant greenfield site just waiting for it to be filled up with concrete and steel. Plans to restore some semblance of the old lake have not fared well in the last few decades despite its historical significance. Mexico City – or as it was called in Aztec times, Tenochtitlan – was once the Venice of America: a city built on the lake, crisscrossed by canals and floating croplands. It must have been an impressive sight to the Spaniards when they first marched across the city’s causeways. But after the conquest, the Spaniards began to dry out the lake in order to expand the city, in the process destroying the fragile anti-flooding mechanisms that the Aztecs had built. The response to constant flooding of the city was to dry out the lake further. After independence, the process of “modernizing” the capital continued, with the last canals being turned into freeways during the 1950s and 60s, and the lake itself practically disappearing by the 1990s save for a few remaining reservoirs which face an uncertain future once the airport is up and running, whenever that may be: it already faces a 2-year delay at least, a $2.5 billion cost overrun, and no shortage of corruption allegations over the opacity in the awarding of contracts.
Aside from the most left-leaning lot, the grand majority of well-off, “educated” Mexicans, remain in favor of finishing the airport. They cite the cost of cancelling the unfinished project, the inferior alternative that López Obrador proposes, and the reputational hit that the economy will face from investors who will now have to wonder whether any infrastructure project will be terminated at a whim. The arguments are not entirely without merit and there is much to criticize about the referendum itself as well as its proposed alternative: revamping an airbase north of the city for commercial use. That the alternative is strongly supported by one of López Obrador’s business cronies (Grupo Riobóo) does not help his cause either. Still, these alternatives are rarely balanced with the fact that a) the new airport will essentially destroy the remnants of the lake, leaving no possibility of its future restoration and 2) the environmental damage could be catastrophic, particularly considering that Mexico City is one of the urban agglomerations most at risk from water shortages in the future; even today many households in the capital have their water supply cut off by the afternoon. It’s already that bad and will only get worse.
Ask any first-worlder about the wisdom of building such a thing and the response is almost invariably that it would an absolute insanity to do so. Here in Britain, the debate over a third runway in Heathrow lasted a whole decade and involved consultations with the population. In France, an airport was also cancelled as a result of environmental risks. Yet these same Mexicans, often with prestigious university degrees from abroad, who can afford to travel to the US or Europe or Asia on a regular basis, and who are generally exposed to first-world lifestyles and amenities would rather prefer to have a shiny new airport. It is as if their own inferiority complex as a third-worlder somehow gets compensated by having a first-world airport as modern as one in Amsterdam or Singapore. Worst still is that nearly every Mexican “liberal” think tank and intellectual is supporting the new airport, often with no better arguments than the reputational one. Apparently, the fate of a trillion-dollar economy which is one of the biggest global exporters of manufactured goods hangs merely on the balance of whether an airport is built or not. Utter nonsense.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of the third-world reptilian brain. The one that no Ivy League degree, no amount of shopping trips to New York, London or Paris, no amount of cosmopolitan hobbies and attitudes seems to ever help evolve beyond. It is the reptilian brain that sees the symbols of modernity – airports, skyscrapers, freeways – as being more important than the outcomes of modernity – equality, prosperity, respect for the environment. Because that reptilian brain ultimately just thinks that making a billionaire foreign investor happy is worth destroying anything that you can’t put a price tag on. First-worlders increasingly recognize this. Third-worlders still don’t. Maybe we never will.