The planetary burn rate

In economics the burn rate is synonymous for how fast a company will use up its shareholder capital. Once exhausted, the company will either have to make a profit, find additional capital, or default.

Our planet has a high burn rate, where our limited natural capital is running out fast. In 1972 club of Rome commissioned a study on the impact of economic and population growth on the earth resources and pollution1 2. The model at the time projected an overshoot in resource use with a collapse of the economic / social system by the mid 21th century. Although over time criticism has been widespread, the continuous revisiting of the work has proven that: “The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features… [of the Limits to Growth] ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century.”3

It is clear that the concern growing in the environmental movements at the end of the 60’s and early 70’s did not inspire subsequent generations of politicians in altering the state of affairs. On the contrary, heading into the 80’s a sharp turn in the opposite direction was taken with Reagonomics and Thatcherism free market politics, giving companies free reign promoting the globalization of the 90’s. Throughout the 00’s this mantra of unlimited growth didn’t change much with hubris culminating in a downfall during the 2008 financial crisis.

The financial crisis sparked the creation of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which tried to form a unified front against globalization and unlimited growth at whatever cost. Yet, as often seen in non-conformist liberal movements the lack of consensus left it divided and without momentum4. Six years after the start of the financial crisis we have returned to the status quo.

Our resource use peaks5 , while we should be divesting from big oil6. Current low oil prices will spur further consumption, but will slow very destructive fossil fuel extraction methods as they rely on high oil prices7. More so, investors are slowly changing their ways in the wake of falling and more volatile oil prices.  With the days of stable oil prices numbered, and research showing that oil in a portfolio doesn’t reflect in significant changes in revenue, some investors are looking elsewhere as investing in oil becomes a potential risk8.

Notwithstanding potential shifts in investment policies, the planetary burn rate remains high and at the current rate we will run out of natural capital soon. According to The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists we are 3 minutes from a global meltdown9 and sadly no outside investors will be there with extra seed capital to save us when it gets too hot.


  1. The Club of Rome  

  2. The Limits to Growth  

  3. A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality 

  4. Why Occupy Wall Street fizzled  

  5. Resource use peaks worldwide  

  6. The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C  

  7. Low oil prices slowing global energy investment  

  8. The logic of divestement: why we have to kiss off big carbon now.  

  9. Three minutes and counting