Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem? Decomposing the problem into two sequential subproblems, (1) how to overcome change resistance and (2) how to achieve proper coupling, opens up a fresh line of attack. A simulation model shows that in problems of this type the social forces favoring resistance will adapt to the forces favoring change. If change resistance is high this adaptation response either prevents proper coupling from ever being achieved or delays it for a long time. From this we conclude that systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be solved first. An example of how this might be done is presented. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.