Scattered rosewood logs are seen on scorched earth at an area harvested for timber in the Outamba-Kilimi National Park in northwest Sierra Leone on March 12, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Is our planet fighting back? Is mother nature regenerating and cleansing itself?

You see; since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, different people developed their own theories of what happened — some believe that eating bats led to the breakout of COVID-19; others went as wild as constructing an absurd conspiracy by China or the US, or both, to take over the world.

So, here is mine. I think what happened is that the earth, which we have been abusing for centuries, has finally decided it’s had enough. Our mother nature has decided it was time to reset the game. We always thought we own the playground, define the rules and get away with it.

The first industrial revolution, which began nearly 300 years ago, set in motion a new way of life dependent on technology and heavy industries, but also dependent on depleting the planet’s natural resource

The 20th century accelerated the abuse of the environment with unprecedented growth: economic development based on fossil fuel and heavy industries. This new way of life has steadily been destroying mother nature through so many ways.

Scientists last week reported a ‘miraculous’ drop in air pollution. Satellite images from the European Space Agency show reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

- Mohammed Almezel, Editor at Large, Gulf News

Let’s take a few examples. Oil refineries. There are 700 of them today in the world. A quarter of them is in the US. Refineries process crude oil to produce all types of petroleum products we use in our daily lives. But they also produce the most hazardous and toxic air pollutants such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. Refineries are also a major source of dangerous chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide. They are also a major contributor to groundwater and surface water contamination. Some of their waste contaminate the soil.

Another culprit is iron and steel plants. In this field, China takes the lead followed by Japan, the US and Turkey. We produce a lot of steel — over 240 kilos for every single person in the world every year. A recent study concluded that the world produces enough steel to build an Eiffel Tower every 3 minutes. That’s 180,000 Eiffel Towers in one year. That is really a lot of steel, isn’t it?

Everything in our life seems to use steel. However, the environmental impact of steel is devastating as steel plants consume lots of environment-unfriendly energy and emit CO2, leading to an increase in global warming. In addition, steel production requires large inputs of coke (similar to coal) which is extremely damaging to the environment. Coke ovens emit air pollution such as the toxic naphthalene, which is known to cause cancer. Wastewater from the coking process is also highly toxic.

Dangers of deforestation

Then, there is the deforestation. We cut millions of trees every year, destroying the natural habitat of animals and plants. Also, fewer trees mean more greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere. For example, the tropical rainforests of South America are responsible for 20 per cent of the earth’s oxygen. But we make sure they are disappearing at a fast rate.

Deforestation also leads to drought. Trees help control the water in our atmosphere through the water cycle, which we learned at grade school science class. Fewer trees mean less water in the air, less rain, dryer soil that is unable to grow crops.

When you think about it, what we have been doing is a crime against our own planet. A group of scientists proposed to the United Nations a few years ago that crimes against the environment be considered crimes against humanity. They even suggested that these ‘crimes’ could be tried at the International Criminal Court. The UN, of course, rejected the idea.

Therefore, my theory: Mother nature decided to hit back, and cleanse herself. She decided she wants her pound of flesh and unleashed its awesome power — this time it is a mysterious virus that came from nowhere to cripple our life.

more on coronavirus

Look around you today. Lockdowns around the world. Traffic jams are no more in the world’s largest cities. Cars stopped burning fuel. Aeroplanes are grounded. Steel plants are shut. Factories are closed. Demand on oil is at a record low. Refineries have slowed down.

In a couple of months since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the environment has gotten a much-deserved break.

Scientists last week reported a ‘miraculous’ drop in air pollution. Satellite images from the European Space Agency show reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — a by-product of burning fossil fuels that cause respiratory problems — across major cities in Europe including Paris, Madrid and Rome due to the virus containment measures. Greenpeace reported that traffic in Spain’s largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, dropped by 60 per cent during the first days of the lockdown. The same is seen in major American cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The American space agency Nasa’s pollution monitoring satellites detected significant decreases in NO2 over China too. It is reported that China’s carbon emissions have dropped by 25 per cent.

The earth seems to be winning this battle so far. But I am not sure it will win the war. The pandemic will fade away, probably in the next two to three months as most projections indicate. And we will ultimately go back doing what we do best — draining all the planet’s resources and polluting the air, the sea and the soil. But for now, I cannot stop having this awkward feeling that mother nature was lurking in some corner, watching what we are going through with a weird, cunning grin.