Eating for the environment

A free OpenLearn course

‘You are what you eat’, goes the old adage, but what you eat also has an impact on the environment. This free course, Eating for the environment, will explore the links between food, nutrition and environmental sustainability. It will start by exploring the diversity on your dinner plate and encourage you to reflect on it in relation to dietary choices and preferences of people around the world. It will explore the connections between food, culture and traditions, and the challenges in providing healthy and nutritious food to the world’s growing population. The course will examine innovative approaches to food that also help environmental sustainability.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the diversity of ingredients on dinner plates from around the world
  • list the ingredients of a dinner plate and place them on the taxonomic tree
  • recognise traditional and cultural associations of food
  • identify geographical origins of different foods and intellectual property rights over them
  • explore the links between food choices and environmental sustainability.Eating for the Environment

Can yoga help us achieve sustainable development goals?


Shonil Bhagwat explains the yogic way of understanding how individual actions relate to global challenges.

The International Day of Yoga – 21 June 2018

As a spiritual practice, cosmic energy is important in yoga. This marks the day of summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, when the earth’s North Pole is most inclined towards the sun, of special significance. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared 21 June as the International Day of Yoga. The idea was first proposed by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address  to the Assembly in 2014, and unanimously accepted by all 193 member states.

In addition to the positive effects of yoga on mind and body and its benefits to health and well-being, Modi also argued: “By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change”. In 2016, the United Nations went even further and proposed yoga  as a means to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. How can yoga help to deal with the global challenges  such as climate change, and to achieve by 2030 the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals ?

Friends doing yoga outsideCreative commons image IconYoga can be an enjoyable social experience

The theory and practice of yoga

Yoga Sutras, a treatise on the theory and practice of yoga, is attributed to Patanjali, a notable scholar in ancient India, who lived over 2000 years ago. He laid out an eight-fold path to yoga which put forward a code of conduct for individuals. Out of these so-called eight “limbs” of yoga, three are better known than others. These are asanas(physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises) and dhyana (meditation). The remaining five are less well-known. These are yamas (ethical restraints), niyamas (ethical observances), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration) and samadhi (superconsciousness). Collectively, these limbs attribute to the spiritual practice of yoga and can potentially have a transcendental effect on the practitioner – meaning that they are alleged to open up experiences fundamentally different to, or beyond, those accessible through ordinary actions. The withdrawal of senses, concentration and superconsciousness are to do with the spiritual aspirations, while the ethical restraints and ethical observances are to do with everyday actions. These are most relevant to addressing the global challenges and achieving the SDGs.

The ethical restraints include qualities such as non-harming; truthfulness; non-stealing; non-possessiveness; and maintenance of vitality. The ethical observances include cleanliness; contentment; purification through discipline; self-study; and devotion to a higher power. The arguments are that these ethical restraints and observances can collectively develop a morality that can help deal with  the global challenges such as climate change and help in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are underpinned by a strong moral agenda that appeals to the human yearning for harmony with fellow human beings and with the natural world of which we are part. The theory and practice of yoga, therefore, seems like a natural fit with this moral agenda.

The sweeping landscape of Jammu and Kashmir, India, close to the site of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation; the birthplace of yogaCreative commons image IconThe sweeping landscape of Jammu and Kashmir, India, close to the ancient settlement of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation; the birthplace of yoga

The benefits of yoga for health and wellbeing

Yet, yoga today is primarily driven by the attraction of physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation. From its roots in ancient India, millions of people around the world now practice yoga and attend their weekly yoga classes, often in the bespoke yoga studios around the world. Yoga has quickly risen in popularity: a 2016 study showed that in the US, for example, there are 36.7 million yoga practitioners, up from 20.4 million in 2012, and they spend over 16 billion US Dollars on yoga classes, gears and accessories.

Yoga has proven beneficial in treating mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorders and generalized anxiety disorders. Yoga classes in the workplace have helped to reduce back pain, reduce sickness absences and increase the productivity of employees. Yoga postures can go a long way in improving the practitioner’s mental and physical health and boosting self-esteem and happiness through their positive benefits on the autonomous nervous system.

Yogic exercises and breathing techniques have proven beneficial in reducing stress in Australian schools; promoting well-being and employment of young people in Africa; helping to alleviate childhood trauma for girls in the US juvenile justice system. The benefits of yoga for personal health and wellbeing have been observed in different settings and among different social groups.

But can yoga make that leap from the individual wellbeing to global wellbeing as the International Day of Yoga seeks to celebrate?

Women doing yoga by the seaCreative commons image IconYoga combines breathing exercises, meditation and physical movements and is proven to benefit wellbeing

From individual wellbeing, to global wellbeing

The first International Day of Yoga celebrations in New Delhi, India, on 21 June 2015 saw over 35,000 people – including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – performing 21 yoga postures for 35 minutes. In 2016, the celebration took the form of a “mass yoga demonstration” in Chandigarh, India, attended by over 30,000 people. In 2017, the outdoor yoga session in Lucknow, India, was attended by over 50,000 people. The 2018 event to be held at the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, India, is set to attract over 60,000 people. These grand gestures to promote the benefits of yoga for health and wellbeing certainly have a mass appeal as the number of people attending these events shows. But can they really achieve the lofty ambitions of global wellbeing that the International Day of Yoga seeks to promote?

The focus of these mass celebrations is far removed from the ethical restraints and the ethical observances that form part of the theory and practice of yoga as Patanjali envisaged over 2,000 years ago. These restraints and observances have the potential to help people and nations to deal with the global challenges and for the world to achieve the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals. But for that to happen, yoga needs to go beyond the grand gatherings, and into people’s hearts and minds. Only by appealing to people’s ethical and moral values, can the practice of yoga promote global wellbeing

A fully referenced version of this article can be downloaded here

Conservation and Development in India: Reimagining Wilderness


Conservation and Development in India: Reimagining Wilderness


Despite decades of efforts to integrate conservation and development, India is torn between two very different worldviews of peoples’ place in the country’s natural environment. This book takes a critical look at nature conservation and poverty alleviation in India. It opens up discussion of the conservation–development nexus in a country that stands at a major crossroads, where forces of neoliberalism, globalisation and urbanisation are driving the future of India’s environment.

As the book shows, conservation in India is increasingly concerned with creating ‘theme parks’ – inviolate, albeit isolated, spaces for wild nature, whereas development is concerned with fast-tracking the construction of built infrastructure while also rolling out nationwide welfare programmes – promising food, clothing and shelter for the poorest of the poor living in rural India. Conservation and development therefore have very different motivations and attempts to find a common ground have been fraught with challenges. This has been particularly so on the fringes of wildlife parks, where the rural poor come in frequent contact with wild animals to the detriment of both people and wildlife.

Chapters are written by leading scholars on India to provide a vision of the future of Indian nature conservation. Whilst focused on India, the book will also be of interest to scholars and researchers of conservation and development more globally. As a ‘rising power’, the world’s eyes are set on India’s development trajectory and there is unprecedented interest in the course of development that the world’s largest democracy takes in the decades to come.

Should we be worried about the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement?

From Campaign for Social Science

Last week’s Queen’s Speech confirmed that despite the path chosen by the US, the UK would honour the Paris Agreement. Here Shonil Bhagwat, Senior Lecturer in Geography at the Open University, looks at the motivations and implications behind the US decision, and how international action on climate change will go on.

As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the withdrawal of US from the Paris climate agreement comes as a setback to international action on climate change. This puts the US alongside Nicaragua and Syria, the two other UN member countries who have refused the deal. Does this withdrawal threaten to derail the international momentum on climate change and should we be alarmed? This article suggests that even without political leadership international action on climate change can continue. Over the last two decades since the commitment made by many countries in 1997 to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the public understanding of climate change has increased and the grassroots action on climate change is going from strength to strength.

Deal and no deal

By withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, the US joins Nicaragua and Syria. The reasons, however, for Nicaragua and Syria to refuse the Paris deal and for the US to withdraw from it are very different. Syria has been ravaged by war and is politically very unstable so it is hardly surprising that the country’s focus is currently on its internal turmoil and not on climate change. Nicaragua, on the other hand, refused the deal because it does not go far enough in halting the temperature rise. The countries who have signed the deal have committed to it on a voluntary basis and without a binding agreement. This means even if the signatories don’t meet the target, there is no mechanism to hold them to account. By contrast, Nicaragua is ahead of the game and has put in place plans to meet 90% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 and is even considered a “renewable energy paradise”. Renewable energy initiatives in most other countries are pale by comparison.

The US has very different reasons to withdraw from the Paris climate deal. Trump wants a deal “on terms that are fair to the United States” and his reason for withdrawing from the deal is that he is “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Trump compared the US with India and China and complained that under the Paris agreement these countries will continue to increase their coal-fired power plants, gaining financial advantage over the US. This misses the point that large sections of populations in countries like India have no access to electricity and many other countries are in a much worse situation than India let alone the US. So Trump’s ‘fairness’ argument is unfounded. By walking away from an international agreement on climate change, Trump’s America will take itself back to the 20th century fossil-fuelled economy while the rest of the world charges ahead towards a greener economy of the 21st century.

Proximate vs ultimate concerns

What is interesting in Trump’s arguments is that two different kinds of concerns are being pitted against each other. Whereas jobs in the coalfields of Pittsburgh is a proximate concern to Trump’s audience, climate change is somewhat distant. For a Pittsburgh resident, 2-degrees temperature increase does not mean anything because that sort of variation in temperature can be experience in a single day. What matters to them is to have a stable and secure job in a coal factory so they can fulfil the basic needs of their families. Trump’s argument that coal jobs will go to China and India if the US signs the climate deal chimes well with them. The scientists and climate negotiators, however, talk in terms of keeping within a 2-degrees rise in global average temperatures. For them, this is the ultimate concern, one on which the future of the planet depends. As President of the world’s second highest greenhouse gas emitter, Trump should know this, but he is choosing not to speak that language, let alone translate it to the Pittsburgh resident.

If we go back to the end of the 20th century, the resident of Paris would not have sympathised with this language either. Even though the environmental movement was very much alive in the second half of the 20th century, the concept of anthropogenic climate change was still nascent. Climate change as an idea consolidated only after the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which made explicit links between greenhouse gas emissions and increasing temperatures. The idea of climate change gained rapid momentum during the 2000s and became a mainstream discourse during the 2010s. In the 21st century, climate change has transformed from being a distant concern to being an immediate concern for many. It has even galvanised public support for many other environmental issues including, but not limited to, agriculture and food security, biodiversity conservation, deforestation, desertification, land degradation, and even poverty alleviation. Climate change has triggered the transformation of economy in many countries and has created jobs in, for example, the renewable energy sector.

Should we be worried?

The US backtracking on climate change deals is nothing new. The country played a major role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol when Bill Clinton was President but failed to ratify it and commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. However, this did not derail international efforts on climate change. Instead, the action on climate change has accelerated since the early 2000s. Flying in the face of Trump’s backtracking, many voices have expressed continued commitment to taking action on climate change including New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. US billionaire Michael Bloomberg has even offered to pay $15 million from his private wealth to the UN’s Climate Secretariat to compensate for the money that Trump’s government will refuse to contribute.

Many world leaders have spoken out about not letting the international climate efforts derail because of the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement and members of the scientific community have added their voice too. The commitment to action on climate change shows no signs of stopping. Even if political leadership from the world’s largest economy is hard to come by, action on climate change looks set to continue at the grassroots. While the political process has been disappointingly slow and frustrating – with flip-flopping on intergovernmental agreements or legally binding targets – grassroots action has gone from strength to strength because of people’s beliefs and convictions. Perhaps at the heart of the grassroots action is the yearning for a world that is different from the established economic and political systems that Trump represents. Whether the US is in or out, the international action on climate change will go on.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.

The environmental costs of Trump’s wall

Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University

It looks like Donald Trump’s “great, great wall” is actually going to happen. Its likely impact on human society has been well-noted, but in the longer-term a barrier across an entire continent will also have severe ecological consequences.

The US-Mexico border is around 1,900 miles (3,100 km) long and some of it has already been fenced off. According to Trump the proposed wall will cover approximately 1,000 miles and “natural obstacles” such as rivers or mountains will take care of the rest.

Aside from the debates over whether or not the wall will do much to stop drug trafficking or illegal immigration, how much it will cost the US taxpayer, or whether Mexico will pay for it, a 1,000-mile wall has significant environmental costs. For a start, all that concrete will generate millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. And then you have the fact the wall will ravage a unique desert habitat that straddles the two countries and will prevent the movement of local animals.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has estimated that the wall will threaten 111 endangered species as it passes through four key wildlife reserves on the US side of the border and several nature reserves on the Mexican side.

Some of the affected species are obvious: animals with cross-border populations include bighorn sheep, ocelots and bears. Splitting plant and animal populations by building a concrete wall promotes inbreeding and a decrease in genetic diversity, which makes many species susceptible to diseases and epidemics. The wall is also likely to wipe out the few jaguars still lingering in Arizona and New Mexico by cutting them off from breeding populations south of the border.

There are fewer than 200 Sonoran pronghorn left – and the wall would run right through their home.
Florin Chelaru, CC BY-SA

Other species are more unexpected: the bald eagle, America’s national bird, can obviously fly over any barriers yet the disruption to its habitat means it makes the FWS’s list of affected migratory birds. Even marine animals such as manatees or sea turtles can’t escape the wall’s impact.

Long division

The Trump wall may never become anything more solid than a metaphor for increased border surveillance, aided by technology, to keep illegal immigration under control. However, if a vast concrete wall really is built, and if it is as tall and impenetrable as Trump hopes, it will presumably last for thousands of years. This will have long-term ecological consequences.

July 2100 on the US-Mexico border if we maintain high carbon emissions. / NASA

The glacial and interglacial cycles of ice ages and warm periods unfold over thousands of years. Over the past 11,000 years we have had a relatively stable climate, but anthropogenic warming is delaying the arrival of the next ice age.

As species start to feel the pressure of a warming climate, they will need to move towards the poles as their habitats shift. Plants and animals currently found in central Mexico may find their “natural” home moves north of the border. The wall will make such movement impossible and will make these species vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Equally, in the much longer term, if or when the next ice age eventually begins and ice sheets start to expand southwards, species from the north of the wall will need to move south to escape the freezing temperatures. The Trump wall will pose a significant obstacle for such movements.

On evolutionary timescales of millions of years, such an obstacle in the movement of animals and plants will drive extinctions and the emergence of new species. A political act of this kind can have far-reaching consequences for the ecological and even evolutionary landscapes.

Build bridges instead

Preexisting security barriers across the US-Mexico border are already making life difficult for local wildlife, according to peer-reviewed research.

Researchers found fewer racoon-like coatis in areas with border fences.
francesco de marco / shutterstock

Scientists across the world consistently call for more permeable border fences in order to allow animals to move through them. One 2011 study even looked specifically at the US-Mexico border. The authors warned species were being forced into risky unfenced “bottlenecks” and called for better planning tailored towards wildlife movement.

Our knowledge of how to conserve animals across international borders has come a long way. Many nations have embraced shared responsibility for shared wildlife, and a number of international legal instruments also set out the “dos and don’ts” for conservation in transboundary regions.

If Trump really wants to show his prowess in construction, and wants to leave a long-term infrastructure legacy, then he should build bridges for wildlife on the US-Mexico border – not walls.

The Conversation

Shonil Bhagwat, Senior Lecturer in Geography, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Book Launch: Conservation and Development (Routledge)

Book launch webpage

Conservation and Development (Routledge)

Speakers: Dr Andrew Newsham (SOAS University of London), Dr Shonil Bhagwat (Open University), Prof Sian Sullivan (University of Bath Spa)

Chair: Colin Poulton, Head of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy, SOAS

Date:9 March 2016 Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes:9 March 2016 Time: 6:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: L67

Type of Event: Book Launch


Conservation and development share an intertwined history dating back to at least the 1700s. But what are the prospects for reconciling the two, and how far have we come with this project? This book explores these questions through a detailed consideration of the past, present and future of the relationship between conservation and development. Bringing to bear conceptual resources from political ecology, social-ecological systems thinking and science and technology studies, Conservation and Development sets this relationship against the background of the political and economic processes implicated in environmental degradation and poverty alike. In this launch and discussion event, building on the concluding chapter of the book, the speakers will discuss the future of conservation and development, drawing upon their own experience of this relationship and fielding questions from the audience.

Green and Pleasant Lands on “Plants: From Roots to Riches”

Shonil Bhagwat talks to Kathy Willis about sacred natural sites, their cultural ecosystems services and their value for conservation of biodiversity

Green and Pleasant Lands on BBC Radio 4 at 13:45 British Summer Time on 21 August 2014

Image for Green and Pleasant Lands


Prof. Kathy Willis examines the different kinds of spiritual, physical and intellectual links that we have with the landscape and their diverse ecosystems and the extent to which they contribute to our health and well being.

As well as providing a source of inspiration and recreation there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that green spaces can make a positive contribution to our health, but what kinds of landscapes are of greatest benefit?

Kathy Willis assesses the some of the latest research assessing physiological and psychological benefits that ecosystems can provide from manicured botanical gardens to wild open countryside

With contributions from Richard Barley, director of horticulture Kew Gardens; Rachel Bragg researcher in Green Care at Essex University, Shonil Bhagwat environmental geographer at the OU, and historian Jim Endersby

Producer Adrian Washbourne.

Podcasts and Downloads from the series

Plant Invaders on “Plants: From Roots to Riches”

Plant Invaders on BBC Radio 4 at 13:45 British Summer Time on 31 July 2014

Podcasts and Downloads from the series


The Victorians’ pride at the effortless movement of plants around the world during the late 19th century was having an unwelcome side effect. Invasive species were beginning to wipe out native populations of plants. With no natural predators to control them, one man’s flower was turning into another man’s weed.

Prof Kathy Willis hears how during the late 1800s, many invasive species from Japanese knot weed to Himalayan balsam to water hyacinth came from deliberate introductions and asks if today, trying to control them is ultimately futile?

As historian Jim Endersby explains both Charles Darwin and Kew’s director Joseph Hooker were the first to examine the impact of invasives, having noticed on the island of St Helena and Ascension Island the effect on native plants.

One of the current biggest invaders is lantana, familiar to British gardeners as a small pot plant. As Shonil Bhagwat of the Open University reveals, since its introduction to Kolkata Botanical garden in the 1870s it decimated native teak plantations. But today opportunities exist to exploit its presence for the wood, basketry and paper industries.

And Kathy Willis hears from Kew conservationist Colin Clubb on the extent to which we should view invasive plants in our ecosystems as part of a strategy to maintain resilience to environmental change in the future.


Presenter: Kathy Willis
Interviewed Guest: Jim Endersby
Interviewed Guest: Shonil Bhagwat
Interviewed Guest: Colin Clubbe
Production Coordinator: Elisabeth Tuohy
Assistant Producer: Jen Whyntie
Producer: Adrian Washbourne
Editor: Deborah Cohen

Reconnecting faith and forests

List of publications on faith and forests to supplement article “Next big idea in forest conservation: Reconnecting faith and forests


Entrance to a sacred forest grove in Kodagu, India

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Nogué, Sandra and Willis, Katherine J. (2014). Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical forest groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecology and Management (In press)

Bhagwat, Shonil A. (2012). Sacred groves and biodiversity conservation: a case study from the Western Ghats, India. In: Pungetti, Gloria; Oviedo, Gonzalo and Hooke, Della eds. Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 322–334.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Dudley, Nigel and Harrop, Stuart R. (2011). Religious following in biodiversity hotspots: challenges and opportunities for conservation and development. Conservation Letters, 4(3) pp. 234–240.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Ormsby, Alison A. and Rutte, Claudia (2011). The role of religion in linking conservation and development: Challenges and opportunities. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 5(1) pp. 39–60.

Massey, Ashley; Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Porodong, Paul (2011). Beware the animals that dance: conservation as an unintended outcome of cultural practices. Society, Biology and Human Affairs, 76(2) pp. 1–10.

Dudley, Nigel; Bhagwat, Shonil; Higgins-Zogib, Liza; Lassen, Barbara; Verschuuren, Bas and Wild, Robert (2010). Conservation of biodiversity in sacred natural sites in Asia and Africa: a review of the scientific literature. In: Verschuuren, Bas; Wild, Robert; McNeely, Jeff and Oviedo, Gonzalo eds. Sacred Natural Sites: conserving nature and culture. London: Earthscan, pp. 19–32.

Ormsby, Alison A. and Bhagwat, Shonil A. (2010). Sacred forests of India: a strong tradition of community-based natural resource management. Environmental Conservation, 37(3) pp. 320–326.

Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Palmer, Martin (2009). Conservation: the world’s religions can help. Nature, 461(7260) p. 37.

Bhagwat, Shonil A. (2009). Ecosystem services and sacred natural sites: reconciling material and non-material values in nature conservation. Environmental Values, 18(4) pp. 417–427.

Bhagwat, S.A. (2007) Church forests in Ethiopia: the author replies. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 5(2): 66–67.

Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Rutte, Claudia (2006). Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(10) pp. 519–524.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Kushalappa, Cheppudira G.; Williams, Paul H. and Brown, Nick D. (2005). A landscape approach to biodiversity conservation of sacred groves in the Western Ghats of India. Conservation Biology, 19(6) pp. 1853–1862.

Brown, Nick; Bhagwat, Shonil and Watkinson, Sarah (2005). Macrofungal diversity in fragmented and disturbed forests of the Western Ghats of India. Journal of Applied Ecology, 43(1) pp. 11–17.

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Kushalappa, Cheppudira G.; Williams, Paul A. and Brown, Nick D. (2005). The role of informal protected areas in maintaining biodiversity in the Western Ghats of India. Ecology and Society, 10(1), article no. 8.

Boraiah, K. T.; Vasudeva, R.; Bhagwat, Shonil A. and Kushalappa, C. G. (2003). Do informally managed sacred groves have higher richness and regeneration of medicinal plants than state-managed reserve forests? Current Science, 84(6) pp. 804–808.