Margaret Atwood is the author of The Handmaid's Tale, a novel set in a future version of the United States where divorce has been outlawed and divorced women (including the novel's narrator) are enslaved as "handmaids"--forced to bear children for infertile wives. It's among the most famous dystopian novels ever written. 

Not only that, Atwood spends some of her nonwriting time working on the devastating problem of climate change. Given all this, it might surprise you to know that Atwood is, in fact, optimistic about the future. In an onstage interview at last week's Collision conference in Toronto, she explained why.

1. Things could be a lot worse.

Atwood is 82 and, she said, most of the audience was born into a time that was "pretty good," as she put it. "Rather than into a time that was pretty bad. Like me; I was born in 1939." That was two months after Canada entered World War II, she said. "It was the '40s, we didn't have a lot of toys. We also didn't have a lot of vaccines. So polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, those were all still with us. Smallpox, still at that time, TB ... antibiotics were just being invented. So it's been a lot worse."

Indeed, she added, the Covid-19 pandemic could have been a lot worse. "I'm pretty optimistic because this pandemic really didn't kill that many people relative to what others ones have done. And it was dealt with quite speedily. I was very impressed."

She recalled the opening lines of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: "'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... ' But it is not the worst of times yet," she said. "And we are still at a moment where we could turn it around."

2. We may be at a breakthrough moment.

Then Atwood said, "Over to you," metaphorically passing the microphone to Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS Discovery District, an accelerator and innovation hub for Canadian startups in several industries, including clean technologies. Atwood and Wu have worked together on MaRS initiatives for years. As MaRS's CEO, and with a long history as an entrepreneur and VC, Wu said, "In every single entrepreneurial endeavor I've been on, it's the ability to get through what seems to be the harshest moments before the most miraculous things start to come." 

As we emerge from the pandemic, he said, "I think we have a renewal and breakthrough moment right now. The choice is what we wish to do with this moment."

3. There's remarkable innovation out there.

To get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Wu said, we will not only have to reduce the emissions we're putting into the atmosphere, we'll have to find ways to reverse the process and extract some of the carbon that's already there--because it will take hundreds of years to dissipate on its own. Fortunately, entrepreneurs are finding ways to do just that. For example, CarbonCure, one of the startups MaRS works with, extracts CO2 from the atmosphere and uses it to reinforce concrete.

Atwood cited another innovation she particularly likes, a membrane filter that removes moisture from air before it enters HVAC systems. "Most of the energy in an air conditioner is used to take out the moisture," she said. "This membrane takes it out before the air gets to the cooling part, and that reduces the energy consumption and the cost by 80 percent. Imagine what that would do in all the air conditioning systems."

Wu sees reason for hope not just in these innovations but in the people creating them and so many more, he said. "I've always bet on people. Miraculous things are done by small groups of committed people," Wu said. "This is a time for small groups of people to do special things. I believe in that."