The concept of Sustainability has emerged from a recognition that all terrestrial systems, be they natural or human, are interconnected, and cannot, therefore, be adequately understood through reductionist analysis. Such an understanding has fundamental implications for the policy making process. While specialist knowledge remains an essential prerequisite in the development of effective 'sustainability' policies, it is not in itself sufficient. An equally important, and all too often neglected, component, is the understanding and insight gained from synthesising detailed and disparate information from across a range of disciplines. With this in mind, this paper builds on Lovin's and Robinson's earlier 'backcasting' work to suggest an alternative strategic structure for reconciling a reliable and affordable electricity industry with the broad tenets of sustainable development. Within this alternative model, electricity demand, as well as supply, becomes an endogenous factor in the policy making process. Moreover, the model essentially rejects the mechanistic optimisation underpinning both the contemporary market model and the earlier planned structure of the electricity industry. By contrast, the backcast proposed here embraces wider environmental and social responsibilities through a more circumspect appreciation of current knowledge and hence a more flexible and responsive policy agenda. © 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.