Handbook of Sustainable Development
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Handbook of Sustainable Development

Second Edition

Edited by Giles Atkinson, Simon Dietz, Eric Neumayer and Matthew Agarwala

This timely and important Handbook takes stock of progress made in our understanding of what sustainable development actually is and how it can be measured and achieved.
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Chapter 13: Vulnerability, poverty and sustaining well-being

W. Neil Adger and Alexandra Winkels


A key tenet of sustainable development is that resources and opportunities should be widely shared in society. Where this fails to occur, individuals, communities and the ecosystems on which they depend are made vulnerable to external perturbations, to failures in governance, and to social crises. Thus development, if it is to be sustainable in the broadest sense, needs to address underlying vulnerabilities in society and vulnerabilities that are created by unsustainable resource use and exploitation. The recognition that reducing vulnerability is a legitimate normative goal of sustainable development has become apparent in the context of global change. Vulnerability is an important characteristic of individuals, social groups and of natural systems. It is a state in which the ability of people in society to cope with environmental and other stresses is in question. The vulnerability of a group or individual depends on the capacity to respond to external stresses that may come from environmental variability and change, or from social upheaval and change. Vulnerability is made up of a number of components including exposure and sensitivity to hazard or stresses and the capacity to adapt. Thus, vulnerability does not exist in isolation from the wider political economy of resource use. It is caused by inadvertent or deliberate human action that reinforces self-interest and the distribution of power. In this chapter we argue that recognizing the interdependencies between factors that create vulnerabilities is central to achieving sustainable development that ensures people’s well-being.

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