They built this city on dreck and droll

Cardiff is full of shit. Literally. The city actually sits on a couple of metres of it; 150 years of ballast dumped from coal ships returning to collect their next load. Cardiff’s archetypal extractive economy never bothered to develop an import trade, so to ensure ocean-going stability the empty ships’ holds had to be filled with rubble, which was then strewn across the marshy moors on arrival at the docks. The world’s debris thus forms the very ground beneath a Cardiffian’s feet.

What’s more, because Victorian Cardiff grew so rapidly, as an anarchic coal-rush money-machine for a few voracious privateers, there was no time for basic planning niceties like sanitation, drainage and waste disposal. The whole Ely/Taff/Rhymni basin became a fly-tip, while heavy-duty waste was just chucked into the sea. Mountains of crap accumulated, altering the lie of the land to such an extent that today these vast mounds form topographical features at Grangetown, Tremorfa and Rumney. When sewerage systems were eventually constructed, it was soon discovered that sticking an industrial metropolis on a sea-level flood plain hard by the estuary with the 2nd highest tides on the planet and at the confluence of three mighty river systems fed by the innumerable streams of the wettest mountains in western Europe was not a great idea. Cardiff duly became the most flood-prone town in the UK, necessitating the raising of ever-higher sea walls and river embankments. Today it is ranked with London, Hull and Southampton as the UK city most at risk of inundation.

Just as high maintenance are the bowel movements of a million people flowing daily downhill to collect here, in this convenient pan, before being piped out from Tremorfa sewage works into the Severn. If it rains (and it usually does) or if the tide is high (and it usually is), the backwashed slurry sits under Cardiff  for days, giving the city its trademark smell. Even during the nine decades when the sulphurous gases and carcinogenic particles of the Dowlais/East Moors Steelworks rained their noxious stench down on Cardiff, the unmistakeable pong of decomposing faeces was paramount. Today, with only the aroma of vomited lager’n’curry swilling in the gutters as serious competition, shit’s victory is complete, helped immeasurably by the raised water table brought about by the Barrage.

Creating a 500 acre, inert, freshwater lake at the junction with the Severn estuary would obviously be quite insane; so that’s exactly what was done when the Barrage was opened in 1999, impounding the rivers Taff and Ely to satisfy a few property developers and civic boosterists – the only time a designated SSSI has been deliberately eliminated on aesthetic grounds alone (tidal mud flats = natural, yuck; lake = upmarket, mmm). It is always amusing to see the looks on visitors’ faces when, lingering at the waterside over a larcenous latte after wandering listlessly around the Bay’s lacklustre attempts to induce pointless consumerism, they are suddenly assailed by the horribly familiar whiff of raw shite. Disconcerted by being forced to bridge the mental gap between the daytime-telly fantasy of gurning, spray-tanned disportment in smart-casual leisure wear to a watery backdrop, and the grim, universal reality of tawdry bodily functions, they slope off to the multi-storey car park. It’s bad enough discovering that the Emperor has no clothes; it’s even worse to notice he hasn’t wiped his arse either. They won’t be back, but the mosquitos will.

When one then factors in the sprawl of suburbia galloping up the hill country to the north, the choking traffic, the air dripping with carbon and nitrogen dioxide particulates, the poisoned rivers, the land contaminated by heavy metals, the shockingly desecrated coastline and Cardiff’s special status as ‘Tritium City’, the most radioactive city in western Europe thanks to being the only one to have a nuclear dump within its boundaries, one begins to grasp the scale of the environmental holocaust that has taken place here over the last 150 years. But that is only scratching the surface of  the full nightmare. Cardiff, as the world’s greatest coal port at the height of the industrial revolution, can fairly be described as the incubator of the carbon economy that has today grown to menace the entire planet’s habitability, and in that scramble for personal wealth, careless plunder of resources, incidental destruction of biosphere and contempt for the future, Cardiff drew the blueprint by which Big Oil and neocon economics now run the world’s affairs. Here then is global warming’s ground zero.

Little wonder, then, that the supreme environmental crimes witnessed first hand by generations have entered the bone-marrow of Cardiffians, with the result that the city is treated as a contemptible dump-and-go facility by the population. An astonishing avalanche of discarded wrappers, packages and bags swirls around one’s feet, making it tricky to avoid the myriad cans, bottles, burger cartons and piles of dog shit. Even I, a Deep Green fundamentally opposed to the anthropomorphic ravaging of Earth, have succumbed to the all-prevailing atmosphere of not giving a damn, and now wilfully drop litter in the city centre as a futile two fingers to the soulless corporate take-over, as well as an impotent rebuttal of the gushing, greenwash guff that pours forth from successive Cardiff councils (political philosophy: God is in his heaven, and all’s well with the world).

Residents are now required to sift, sort and separate various categories of household waste into various differently-coloured bags for various collection rotas. It’s a task of fiendish complexity that takes up hours of the week and would have me tearing my hair out, if I only had any. There are white bags (garden waste, collected weekly, put out night before), black bags (non biodegradable waste, collected weekly, put out in morning), green bags (biodegradable waste, collected fortnightly, put out the night before), pale-green bags (food waste, insert in mini brown caddy, tie up when full, put in slightly bigger brown caddy) and the aforementioned big brown caddy (accumulated food waste, collected weekly, put out the night before, make sure the handle is up and the caddy faces the road).  You need a degree in spatial geometry, a broad knowledge of botany, chemistry and biology, an infallible memory, a heightened and continuous awareness of the calendar, unending patience, a strong back and the leisure hours of the idle rich to get it right.

All this unpaid labour allows the council to get away with understaffing at their Lamby Way landfill tip, and fits neatly with the Tories’ laughable ‘Big Society’, ‘We’re All In This Together’ bullshit, whereby the public realm is abandoned and random acts of individual goodness are left to fill the gap, or not. Those actually responsible for generating the rubbish – the multi-billion pound retail, packaging, advertising and food & drink industries – get away with doing nothing and paying nothing. Quite the opposite, they are urged on by the gurus of perpetual, unsustainable growth who run Cardiff. The latest council wheeze is approval of a giant, private sector waste incinerator to burn the city’s garbage  now that all the possible landfill sites have, would you believe it, been filled. The incinerator will also take the garbage of other councils far and wide, maintaining Cardiff’s tradition of giving a warm welcome to the shit of all comers. Developers PMG, an outfit run by Paul Guy, the guy who gave the city the retail park at Leckwith, and Mike Hall, the latest in a long line of former Welsh rugby players to have gone on to a career as an ‘entrepreneur’, have teamed up with ‘waste management’ outfit Viridor to bring the incinerator to Splott. We are assured the outpourings from its chimneys will be harmless and the 300 trucks a day travelling to and from the facility will barely be noticed. This begs the question: well, in that case, why not build it near the motorway, on open land away from housing, and on higher ground where the fumes will be safely blown away, somewhere like, say, Lisvane?

But let’s not go there; let’s just concentrate on the key issue never addressed: the throwaway, no tomorrow, inbuilt obsolescence system that the whole ever-decreasing-circles farrago of work/aspire/borrow/spend  depends upon, a system that is never recognised as problematic, let alone challenged. Instead of taking steps to eliminate the waste in the first place, the council rely on technological fixes that encourage production of even more of the stuff, that by-pass the imperatives to recycle, re-use and repair, and that will usher in side-effects to further degrade the Cardiff environment  (sign the online petition organised by Cardiff Against The Incinerator at http://tinyurl.com/cardiffburner). And, when a modest, sensible measure is proposed like the Assembly government’s plan to introduce a small charge for the plastic carrier bags that are smothering Wales, the familiar strains of the “bad for business” chorus fill the South Wales Echo.

So, those few Cardiffians who can be bothered toil away uselessly fussing around with their personal rubbish, making not a blind bit of difference to the ever-accelerating trashing of the planet – but at least exorcising any residual guilt while allowing the council to move up a place or two in the absurdly irrelevant recycling league tables. Meanwhile, humanity hurtles towards mass suicide.

As a glance at the last 10,000 years of human history inarguably proves, we are a species of unique viciousness, stupidity and self-delusion (a big brain? so what homo!). Only a very dysfunctional simpleton would set fire to his house to keep warm, yet that is what we, scarcely credibly, are doing. We have tragically turned out to be one gene short of a full chromosome. Our awareness of our own mortality, far from being a signifier of superiority over other mammals, has instead acted as a crippling handicap through which all our experiences are filtered. Knowing we’re going to die before the shit hits the fan, we therefore don’t care – we really are that crude. As W H Auden (1907-1973) put it, contemplating the human condition on the eve of WW2 in his sublime poem September 1, 1939, we are:

Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.