Over the last two million years, humans have colonized almost the entire biosphere on Earth, thereby creating socio-ecological systems in which fundamental patterns and processes are co-regulated by socio-economic and ecological processes. We postulate that the evolution of coupled socio-ecological systems can be characterized by a sequence of relatively stable configurations, here denoted as ‘socio-metabolic regimes’, and comparatively rapid transitions between such regimes. We discern three fundamentally different socio-metabolic regimes: hunter-gatherers, agrarian societies and industrial society. Transitions between these regimes fundamentally change socio-ecological interactions, whereas changes and variations within each regime are gradual. Two-thirds of the world population are currently within a rapid transition from the agrarian to the industrial regime. Many current global sustainability problems are a direct consequence of this transition. The central hypothesis discussed in this article is that industrial society is at least as different from a future sustainable society as it is from the agrarian regime. The challenge of sustainability is, therefore, a fundamental re-orientation of society and the economy, not the implementation of some technical fixes. Based on empirical data for global resource use (material and energy flows, land use), this essay questions the notion that the promotion of eco-efficiency is sufficient for achieving sustainability, and outlines the reasons why a transition to a new socio-metabolic regime is now required. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.