Vulnerability in the context of sustainability refers to the degree to which, and reasons why a community may be vulnerable to perturbations that may compromise its long-term sustainability. In this way, vulnerability is related to resiliency – the degree to which a community may resist and/or recover from a disturbance. Vulnerability is often discussed in the context of “vulnerability assessments,” which typically involve identifying, quantifying, and perhaps ranking risks.
Assessments may further prioritize strategies for preparing for the various risks. Risks may be tied to external influences, such as rising seas, or due to weaknesses within the community’s internal defenses. An example of a vulnerable community might be a coastal community that will likely lose its freshwater aquifer as sea-level rises and may not have the capacity to properly or quickly develop coping mechanisms.
(CC Image (left) of Climate Vulnerability Monitor by Camadrilena (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Another example could be rising temperatures changing a regions typical precipitation patterns, leading to a change such as drought or flood, or altering the types of crops traditionally grown in an area.
The list of possible vulnerabilities and challenges to resiliency in communities and the larger global society are numerous and with varying degrees of threat levels and likeliness. Perhaps the more pertinent question, or line of thinking, is what are the threats to sustainable, healthy, and resilient communities, and what are the options we have to systematically and aggressively take on those challenges.
As of now, it appears that we are thinking that solutions will appear fortuitously or by technical genius, rather than by fortitude and coming to terms with the scale of the issues and admitting we have, as a global society, messed things up.