Raegan Kelly of Better for All On The Case For Optimism About The Next Ten & Twenty Years

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I do believe that shifting our primary identities from individual “consumer” to “citizen” or “community member” is a cornerstone. We will not buy ourselves out of this crisis, though we have to some extent bought ourselves into it. And our concept of community needs to be redefined to include all living things. Human exceptionalism, with the world around us treated as a resource base that we can “know,” is causing us to self-destruct. If we can raise up a generation of humans who perceive themselves as being part of the fabric of the world they live in, with all of our destinies interconnected and inseparable, what miracles could they conceive?

Reading the news can be so demoralizing: climate change, war, fires, epidemics, rogue AI, mental health, authoritarianism, extreme partisanship. But humans need hope. In order for us to create a positive future, we need to be able to have hope that there can be a positive future. What is the “Case for Optimism” over the next decades? What can we look forward to and hope for to help us strive for a more positive future?

In this series, we aim to explore and highlight the positive aspects, potential breakthroughs, and reasons for optimism that lie ahead in the coming decade and beyond. We are talking to authors, researchers, entrepreneurs, scientists, futurists, and other experts who can shed light on the exciting advancements, innovations, and opportunities that await us. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Raegan Kelly.

As Head of Product and Sustainability Lead at Better for All, green living and plastics expert Raegan Kelly has spent years working with biopolymer engineers and manufacturing experts to create a unique, PHBH plastic that acts as an alternative to traditional single-use cups.

Prior to Better for All, she worked with Warner Bros Records, LACMA, Otis College of Design, Disney’s Epcot Center, and more as a sole proprietor. She has 30 years experience in key creative positions, both hands on and managerial — coordinating collaborators dispersed geographically, bringing a variety of skills and disciplines together to help achieve a business’ core mission. At USC Annenberg, Kelly built Vectors, an online interactive journal that included the design, programming and implementation of interactive data-driven interfaces for scholars and scientists.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I was born into a temperate world with water bubblers, record players, and smog alerts, and brought my own children into a world of individual plastic water bottles, plastic turf, plastic clothes, plastic cups, shoes, diapers, snack bags, toxins, infertility, species collapse, trash, wildfire smoke, and heat.

Well before I had children though, I worked in documentary film behind the camera. I loved the work, but I also felt deeply torn by the distance between what the act of storytelling could do for our subjects, and what our subjects actually needed. I remember traveling to Mexico with a delegation of labor union organizers from Minnesota. My travel companions were concerned about the impact of the then nascent NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement, 1994) on the ability of workers in Mexico to make fair labor demands on American and International corporations taking advantage of cheaper labor, lax environmental regulations, and tax breaks south of the border.

My delegation believed NAFTA needed (and didn’t get) a social contract. I was deeply struck at that time by how hopeful the people we interviewed were that they were on camera — that somehow the act of telling their stories would create a reaction that would solve their most urgent problems. What I learned and took from those experiences was far greater than the impact our documentary footage ever had. I decided a few years after that to shift gears from recording the work of others to making things myself.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

My current job is also one of my all-time favorites–I lead product development at a biobased and compostable products startup under the trademark Better for All. I work with both materials innovators and manufacturers to develop products designed to replace petroleum plastics — our first product is a home compostable and biobased cup designed to replace the ubiquitous red party cup. I spend a lot of time in factories — before COVID, in China, and since COVID, here in the U.S. I matured during the explosion of globalization and the development of supply chains designed to output massive quantities of low-quality, low-priced goods that we now understand are causing environmental devastation. During this process, U.S. manufacturing was gutted — one of my coworkers illustrates this personally: 10 years ago when he introduced himself as “process engineer” people’s next question was, “and you’re employed?”

We have this opportunity right now to rebuild US manufacturing with different incentives and guidelines in place: energy efficiency, nontoxic materials, biotechnology, workplace diversity, equity, and incentives to re-energize US public education, design out waste, and make a commitment to actual product improvements rather than “new and improved” for marketing purposes only.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about the case for optimism. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. When we refer to being optimistic about the future, what exactly do we mean? Why is it important to have an optimistic outlook about the future?

I have twin teenagers, younger nephews and a niece. I owe it to them to not only have hope, but to work in service of their futures. I look to climate scientists, biologists, conservationists, and activists to keep me focused on what matters and guide my next steps both personally and professionally. From paleontologist Jacqueline Gill’s chapter in Not Too Late, Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility: “Earth’s deep past is not a license to test the limits of ecological resilience, nor is it an assurance that, no matter what comes of humanity, ‘the planet will be fine.’ The hard rock record does not promise that we, in all of our soft-bodied ephemeralness, could not possibly do as much damage as an asteroid. In the climate crisis, humans are the impact event, but we are also the small furry things emerging from the safety of our burrows in the aftermath and the ferns renewing the blasted landscape with greenery, creating something new out of the ashes of the old world. Unlike the dinosaurs, we have a choice: Will we be the asteroid or the fern?” p. 128

What are some reasons people might feel pessimistic about the future, and how do you suggest we address these concerns?

Overcoming despair about what is happening to our world can be difficult. For work, and because I am who I am, I regularly find myself faced with desperate evidence of what we are doing to our planet. Desperate.

With more people experiencing extremes in their daily lives — remember when weather was the “safe” conversation topic? — it’s a relief to be past the three decades of “denial” and onto action, with real signs of a paradigm shift underway.

I also find joy in other interests. My daughter is an avid soccer player and watching the progress in professional women’s soccer is inspiring. Though politically women are losing ground in many areas in terms of self-determination, the growth of the US national women’s soccer league is a counterpoint. Leadership is increasingly in the hands of business women, former players, and allies, and the players themselves are lifting each other up with collective action and demands for equity, bodily autonomy, and employee ownership. As each new team emerges, they build on shared strategies and improve on what came before. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch our local team, Angel City FC, launch and grow with both my daughter and my son deeply invested as fans and supporters.

I am also an advisor to an incredible non-profit celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, Prison Arts Collective. PAC brings arts programming to people living in prisons across California. Painting, sketching, music, theater, dance, yoga, writing — participants regularly describe the power of sitting in safe collective spaces to learn new modes of self-reflection and expression. Participants become leaders of new groups, and so the program has grown.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Next Ten and Twenty Years?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

. Regenerative agriculture. Farmers across the world finding new ways to grow crops without petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides or herbicides, and integrating some combinations of old world and new world approaches-perennials, ruminants, composting, crop rotation, no or low till, etc.

. Rewilding — I have been experimenting with this on my little quarter acre of land. After 8 years of work, I have a year-round, drought tolerant, chemical-free, pollinator-friendly native plant yard. It definitely doesn’t always look super neat and tidy, but it’s a source of pleasure and the sounds of peace and life.

3 . Conservation recovery stories — they happen. Whether it’s Sylvia Earle’s Hope Spots, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Barbados Conservation Trust, the Trust for Public Land — there are not enough but they give me hope.

4 . The Animal Sanctuary movement. These are places, often run by individuals and powered by volunteers, that offer safe places for domestic and wild animals to recover and be released if they can survive, or to live out their natural lives knowing kindness and some measure of freedom. Have you ever seen a pig smile?

5 . Biobased materials. Finally we see new materials and new methods hitting their stride, subject to much greater scrutiny than their petroleum and wood based counterparts. How are they made, are they truly nontoxic, can they be renewed, what are the best applications for each material, what happens to them when they have outlived their usefulness?

In what specific areas do you see technology having the most positive impact over the next 10 to 20 years?

While I do not believe that “technology is going to save us,” I do believe that we can save ourselves and technology will be part of the solution. For sure I am concerned about issues of privacy, exploitation, monopolization and disinformation, but also communications technology has played an incredibly important role in democratizing access to the means of production. When I went to grad school, the introduction of cheaper digital recording media was definitely influencing filmmaking, but there was still a canon with very few ‘marginalized’ voices in the mix. If you wanted to see films by women or people of color, you took a class on films by women or people of color.

Today scientists, activists and conservationists use media to tell stories of ecologies and creatures we heretofore had to seek out in rare publications. I see stories of impacted communities rising to the level of national news. I believe this is a large part of why the climate story is now also a social justice story and an animal liberation story and a story about building resilience, regeneration and taking responsibility.

While technology holds immense potential, it can also present challenges. How can we ensure that the progress we make in technology contributes to a more optimistic future and doesn’t exacerbate societal problems?

It’s hard to answer this given that so much of our current technology is concentrated in the hands of a few billionaires (trillionaires?). Simply put, we need more innovators and stakeholders from a much broader and deeper range of backgrounds and cultures bringing their perspectives to the table. Each community has its own relationship with the land they live on, and the natural resources they depend on. Completely unexpected problems and potential solutions will come from a different set of minds with equal access to education and funding.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I think a lot about this, and I don’t have an easy answer. I do believe that shifting our primary identities from individual “consumer” to “citizen” or “community member” is a cornerstone. We will not buy ourselves out of this crisis, though we have to some extent bought ourselves into it. And our concept of community needs to be redefined to include all living things. Human exceptionalism, with the world around us treated as a resource base that we can “know,” is causing us to self-destruct. If we can raise up a generation of humans who perceive themselves as being part of the fabric of the world they live in, with all of our destinies interconnected and inseparable, what miracles could they conceive?

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 😊

I would love to create a joiner’s table for people working with new materials — I regularly see one startup in biomaterials picking apart a different solution, borrowing talking points from the oil and gas lobbies to take down competition. I actually think we could learn a lot from each other, and there is a place for every solution. We need it all — we need to recycle the materials already out there, we need to find energy efficient ways to make things without toxic chemicals and with renewable materials, we need to figure out how to build effective reuse systems. We need it all.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I hope you’ll join us in our mission to curb the use of single-use, petroleum-based plastics. You can learn more about our bio based, reusable and certified home compostable cups at betterforall.co.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

Raegan Kelly of Better for All On The Case For Optimism About The Next Ten & Twenty Years was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.