Alex Steffen is a planetary futurist, which means that he spends his days thinking about where our world is heading. Especially in 2017, that sounds like a prescription for anxiety: visions of mass extinctions, vanishing ecosystems, and rising oceans dominate popular conceptions of our climate future.
But Steffen is more clear-eyed. The potential for solutions, not disasters, is what motivates him, and by launching a subscription-based newsletter, “The Nearly Now,” he’s hoping to unite people moving toward the future with the same pragmatic optimism and enthusiasm for radical, yet doable, change.
For the past 25 years, Steffen has been a leader in the sustainability scene: In 2008, he wrote Worldchanging, a guide to innovation and environmentalism in the 21st century, and last year, he created and produced a live documentary series called The Heroic Future, which he filmed over three nights in San Francisco. Throughout his time in the field, he’s watched the idea of what climate action and sustainability efforts entail shift significantly. In the 1990s, what we as a society needed to do to be sustainable was less extreme. “There was an idea that we could nudge the system, and implement incentives, and they would work over time,” Steffen tells Fast Company. That meant doing things like taking shorter showers, boosting transit systems, and installing solar panels—things that still obtain today, but given that those gradual shifts meant to be implemented in the ’90s never accelerated at the necessary rate to achieve any real objectives, the solutions we need to focus on now are necessarily more drastic.
Now, conceptualizing reaching our sustainability goals—which , according to Stockholm Resilience Center director Johan Rockström, includes leveling off global carbon emissions by 2020 and reducing them to around zero by 2050—feels daunting. But by using storytelling to convey how that’ll be accomplished, and what our world will be like when it is, Steffen thinks he can shift this massive undertaking from intimidating to something to get excited about.
“This is a newsletter for people who understand that the times have changed and now we need much more ambitious, much more innovative, maybe even more radical solutions if we’re going to be sustainable,” Steffen says. “And this newsletter comes out of the recognition that the audience I’m trying to speak with is ahead of the curve on sustainability, so the more traditional way of writing pieces for the general public, and so forth, wasn’t the right approach. I had to look at a business model that would reach people directly.”
Steffen’s dispatches, which will land in inboxes anywhere from one to three times a week, will generally fall into two categories. One of those is what he calls “foresight and new perspectives,” in which he writes connects his insights to current events around the world, like his exhaustive examination linking the carbon bubble to Russia’s forays into the U.S. political system.
The second category is “future stories.” Here, Steffen collects his imaginings of a California eight years from now, struggling to live on a planet in the midst of a climate crisis. “In San Patricio, A Community Struggles with Transformation” dives into the politics of a fictional California city in 2025 (cars boast faded Warren 2020 bumper stickers) as residents begin to lash back at the onslaught of eco-friendly developments ushered in by a progressive mayor. It’s fiction, but it’s also recognizable.
“One of the things that both foresight and future stories can do is help us face these changes—help us play and safely engage with things that otherwise might be beyond our grasp,” Steffen says.
The function of newsletter’s paywall, Steffen says, is pragmatic: He wants to make a living doing this kind of writing—like his latest project, a manifesto called “The Last Decade and You,” which states in no uncertain terms that everything we love is under threat unless we act swiftly and radically—and sharing it with interested people. In that way, he sees the newsletter at the center of a community of like-minded people who are keen to explore these same approaches. “The point is just to get this information to folks, and create the opportunity for them to cohere into a larger group of people who are both imagining radical change for sustainability, and implementing new ideas and enterprises,” Steffen says.
Find out more about “The Nearly Now” here.