Conventional theories of the long-term trajectory of human beings on planet earth hold that over most of our species’ existence small numbers of people had a limited influence on the earth system. The trajectory of human societies, while bounded by fluctuating climate conditions, generally rose upward in complexity as populations grew slowly. In this view, substantial influence of environmental change on people and vice-versa occurred late in the sequence and became significant only after the Industrial Revolution. Along with limited view of the relationship between humans and the environment were arguments about necessary conditions for the florescence of ‘civilization’, including specific roles for water management (irrigation), agriculture, and demographic pressures and changes. More recent research, theories, and data have called into question – and even inverted – many of these previously held views. A new view of human-environment interactions in the past is emerging where both human influence on the planet and the role of global environmental change in the development of human societies are more tightly linked through much longer time frames (e.g. [1, 2]), and in which societal complexity emerged in different ways than previously theorized. Current approaches to modelling the earth system and its interactions with the human system attempt to see environmental and social change in the past as inextricably linked, and to explicitly represent these in a holistic way. Here we present an evolving dialogue begun at a recent workshop in Delft (‘ESCHER: Emergence of Social Complexity through Human-Environment Interactions’), at which new ways to model both macro- and micro-scale human-environment interactions were discussed, and the theoretical intersection of modeling societal and planetary change over short and long time scales was examined. These new modelling approaches are buoyed by ever-increasing computational power and growing data sets but will require new conceptual and theoretical tools and a dialogue among a wide range of disciplines to be applied productively.