Despite increasing efforts to reach sustainability, key global biophysical indicators such as climate change and biodiversity loss continue to deteriorate rather than improve. Ongoing failure to move towards sustainability calls into question the focus of current research and policy. We recommend two strategies for progress. First, sustainability must be conceptualized as a hierarchy of considerations, with the biophysical limits of the Earth setting the ultimate boundaries within which social and economic goals must be achieved. Second, transdisciplinary research programs must confront key normative questions facing modern consumer societies. The humanities should have a key role in such programs. Assisted by these strategies, ambitious targets that realistically reflect the biophysical limits of the life-support system of the Earth must be set and relentlessly worked towards.