Geo-cultural Time: Advancing Human Societal Complexity Within Worldwide Constraint Bottlenecks—A Chronological/Helical Approach to Understanding Human–Planetary Interactions

  • Joel D. GunnEmail author
  • John W. DayJr.
  • William J. Folan
  • Matthew Moerschbaecher
Review Paper


The integration of feedbacks between Holocene planetary history and human development benefits from a change in perspective that focusses on socio-historical periods of stability separated by global-scale events, which we call foundational transitions or bottlenecks. Transitions are caused by social and/or astronomical and biogeophysical events such as volcanoes, changes in solar emissions, climate change such as sea-level/ice volume conditions, biogeochemical and ecological changes, and major social and technical innovations. We present a global-scale cultural chronology that accounts for major changes generated by such events in the late Pleistocene and Holocene. These changes are governed by transitions that make energy more or less available to human groups. The chronology is followed by methodologies to incorporate the innate, Malthusian–Darwinian human tendency to grow systems over time into a helical-feedback equation that provides for testing the hypothesis. A proof of concept test of these ideas using information system-based data from the Maya lowlands in conjunction with other civilizations suggests a troubled transition for the current worldwide economic system because of potentially catastrophic climate impacts and resource constraints on biogeophysical-social resilience in the face of obvious needs of the system to change to a more sustainable mode of acquiring energy. The Maya case implies that change is more likely to transpire because of planetary-scale disturbances/constraints in the Earth (human and planetary) system and will likely lead to strong social disruptions. There may be as many as 200 such case studies to test this idea worldwide. Our analysis suggests that a transition toward sustainability for the current energy dense globalized industrial society will be very difficult.


Holocene Complex societies Worldwide cultural stages Terminology platform Maya lowlands Fossil fuel Empires Sea-level stabilization 



This paper was originally prepared as background reading for the Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE) and National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) workshop on “If the Past Teaches, What does the Future Learn?”, October 30–November 3, 2018. It arose from insights gathered from a workshop earlier in the year on the Emergence of Societal Complexity Through Human–Environment Relations (ESCHER) on water management systems and their role in sponsoring complex social system in Delft, The Netherlands at Delft Technical University, February 5–9, 2018. That workshop was sponsored by the Delft Technical University and Wenner-Gren Foundation (Proposal No.: 18-0067) to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The original inspiration for the idea of planetary-wide bottlenecks arose from an earlier publication by the authors on worldwide sea-level stabilization that facilitated the origins of urbanism worldwide. These ideas have developed over the last two decades beginning with discussions among JDG, JWD, and WF at the University of Campeche in Mexico. The authors appreciate the additional insights into energy problems that are issuing from the Malthusian–Darwinian tendency to grow systems beyond carrying capacity from which humans are not an exception. We are also grateful to a long list of colleagues and participants in the above-mentioned workshops for discussion and comments on parts or the whole of the manuscript. Sarah Cornell provided the immediate impetus for the paper in her presentation at Delft in which she encouraged us to explore a model that encompassed the planet and humans and did not privilege complex system terminology. For the moment we seem to have succeeded at the former but still must work on the latter.

Author Contributions

All authors contributed to the conception, writing, and development of this work.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary material

41247_2019_58_MOESM1_ESM.docx (556 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 556 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joel D. Gunn
    • 1
    Email author
  • John W. DayJr.
    • 2
  • William J. Folan
    • 3
  • Matthew Moerschbaecher
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of North Carolina at GreensboroGreensboroUSA
  2. 2.Department of Oceanography and Coastal SciencesLouisiana State UniversityBaton RougeUSA
  3. 3.Centro de Investicaciones Historicas y SocialesUniversidad Autonoma de CampecheCampecheMexico

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