Campus Sustainability Office


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Vulnerability in the context of sustainability refers to the degree to which, and reasons why a community may be susceptible to disruptions that may compromise its long-term survival. 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 assessments which typically involve identifying, quantifying, and sometimes ranking risk. Much like in the military, vulnerability may be tied to overwhelming external influences or due to weaknesses in internal defenses. The concept can be applied to a single organism in which health is threatened by injury or illness, a community of organisms threatened by disease or habitat loss, or human communities in which the health of society is threatened by inequality, injustice, competition, violence, etc. One example might be a coastal community that will lose its freshwater aquifer as the sea level rises and may not have the capacity to quickly or adequately develop alternatives. Another could be rising temperatures that change a regions' typical precipitation patterns, leading to drought or flood, or altering the types of crops traditionally grown in the area. Lack of water and lack of food can both lead to conflict over resources, further weakening communities. 

Assessments may also help by defining strategies for preparing for various risks. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes and speaks about the importance of social infrastructure in addition of to physical infrastructure in combating vulnerability.

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.

Right now it appears that there are two camps of thought; some believe solutions will appear miraculously or by technical genius while others would like to see us start by coming to terms with the scale of the issues and admitting we have, as a global society, messed up..

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