A person born in Spain a century ago could expect to live 41 years on average*. If they had lived, for example, in the city of Malaga, they would have had a 1.2% chance of having electricity or gas at home and a remote chance of owning their own means of transport.
Today, in Sierra Leone or Chad, the life expectancy is more than 50 years and people have triple those chances of enjoying amenities.
Humanity has made unprecedented progress in the last hundred years. However, there is a lot of talk, particularly by central banks, about the idea that the debt accumulated to finance this wellbeing is at a high, accounting for around 225% of world GDP.
We also know that, behind the macroeconomic growth rates, the gap between the very rich and the very poor continues to widen, generating what we might call a second debt: a social debt that is endangering the foundations of progress, such as multilateralism and stability.
However, in this global surge, we may have forgotten a third debt. It is less well-known, less newsworthy than financial and social debt: it's a debt to the planet that we started to accumulate at a meaningful pace in the mid-1980s. It is different because it is global, transformative and irreversible in the scale of a human lifetime.
As a result of accelerating growth and its incredible benefits, catalyzed by unprecedented population growth, in 1986 the total consumption of materials by our prosperous society quietly passed the planet's biocapacity for the first time in the history of the Earth, endangering the balance of our home.
In his book entitled "A Short History of Financial Euphoria", Galbraith said that all euphorias which have ended in crisis repeat the same pattern. Rapidly rising gains, people who believe the gains are due to their acumen and enormous intelligence, warnings by doomsayers that the boom cannot last forever, and amnesia on the part of those who experienced a previous crisis.
However, of the debts we have acquired with the planet, the one that is talked about most is global warming. Biodiversity losses, overexploitation of aquifers, and deforestation are accelerating a deterioration of environmental conditions that seriously threatens the well-being, progress and stability we have achieved.
This is not something that will happen in the future — it's happening now: from growing human and material losses due to extreme weather events, migrations driven by persistent droughts, to changes in the flavour and scent of natural products or changes in property values due to climate change.
This is not a zero-sum game. The euphoria of growth has become dangerously disproportionate and there is a serious risk that we have taken on a debt which the planet's resources may well be insufficient to repay.
As President Obama said a few months ago, we may be the first generation to lose well-being due to the environmental crisis, but also the last one with a real chance of stopping it.
José Luis Blasco, Global Sustainability Director at Acciona
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