Evolutionary change is interpreted in terms of the near-universal ecological scenario of stressful environments. Consequently, there is a premium on the energetically efficient exploitation of resources in a resource-inadequate world. Under this environmental model, fitness can be approximated to energetic efficiency especially towards the limits of survival. Furthermore, fitness at one stage of the life-cycle should correlate with fitness at other stages, especially for development time, survival and longevity; ‘good genotypes’ under stress should therefore be at a premium. Conservation in the wild depends primarily on adaptation to abiotically changing habitats since towards the limits of survival, genomic variation is rarely restrictive. The balance between energetic costs under variable environments and energy from resources provides a model for interpreting evolutionary stasis, punctuational and gradual change, and specialist diversification. Ultimately, a species should be in an equilibrium between the physiology of an organism and its adaptation to the environment. The primary key to understanding evolutionary change should therefore be ecological, highlighting energy availability in a stressed world; this approach is predictive for various patterns of evolutionary change in the living and fossil biota.