Human societies, and their well-being, depend to a significant extent on the state of the ecosystems that surround them. These ecosystems are changing rapidly usually in response to anthropogenic changes in the environment. To determine the likely impact of environmental change on ecosystems and the best ways to manage them, it would be desirable to be able to predict their future states. We present a proposal to develop the paradigm of predictive systems ecology, explicitly to understand and predict the properties and behaviour of ecological systems. We discuss the necessary and desirable features of predictive systems ecology models. There are places where predictive systems ecology is already being practised and we summarize a range of terrestrial and marine examples. Significant challenges remain but we suggest that ecology would benefit both as a scientific discipline and increase its impact in society if it were to embrace the need to become more predictive.