Calls for more broad-based, integrated, useful knowledge now abound in the world of global environmental change science. They evidence many scientists' desire to help humanity confront the momentous biophysical implications of its own actions. But they also reveal a limited conception of social science and virtually ignore the humanities. They thereby endorse a stunted conception of 'human dimensions' at a time when the challenges posed by global environmental change are increasing in magnitude, scale and scope. Here, we make the case for a richer conception predicated on broader intellectual engagement and identify some preconditions for its practical fulfilment. Interdisciplinary dialogue, we suggest, should engender plural representations of Earth's present and future that are reflective of divergent human values and aspirations. In turn, this might insure publics and decision-makers against overly narrow conceptions of what is possible and desirable as they consider the profound questions raised by global environmental change.© 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.