This paper uses a variety of historical evidence from Indonesia to explore the conditions for sustainable management of natural resources. In the agricultural sphere, history gives reason for optimism regarding the ability of individuals to conserve and improve soil resources on an uncoordinated, anarchic basis under systems of intensive smallholder farming and agroforestry. It also suggests that this ability may be enhanced, rather than eroded, both by population growth and by the commercialization of agriculture. When it comes to the management of forests and fisheries and the conservation of nature, by contrast, there is less reason for optimism. If sustainable solutions are to be found in these spheres, the historical evidence suggests that they will involve political hierarchy, and will depend on the honouring of a social contract in which the state serves the public interest while retaining the powers of coercion which it needs in order to do just that.