For over a century, western economic development has depended upon the use of combustible hydrocarbons for its energy needs. The 20th century saw the prolific exploitation of fossil hydrocarbon sources (coal and oil) which are finite and exhaustible. There is a clear need for society to conserve such non-renewable resources. In addition to conservation, a wholesale switch to renewable energy sources should be seen as the first research and development priority. In the interim, moving towards a crop-based fuel economy appears to be a good alternative to provide the necessarily dramatic changes in lifestyle and mindset that would be required of consumers, for a wholesale shift away from hydrocarbon combustion. Before programs and policies designed to address the need for an interim or alternative energy and materials economy are put into place however, it is important to understand the barriers and opportunities put forth by society itself. Conventional frameworks designed to understand this type of change are of limited assistance. This paper argues that institutional thinking is a very useful tool in addressing these types of environmental problems.