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The Electric BlanketFernanda Eberstadt

Fernanda Eberstadt
Fernanda Eberstadt
Fernanda Eberstadt
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Fernanda Eberstadt is the author of five novels and one book of non-fiction. Her articles have appeared in journals including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vogue, Frieze, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, and the Times Literary Supplement.


I was born in New York in 1960, an era when people—Americans, especially—still believed in the modern. My grandparents were wild about gadgets: at Sunday lunch, my father’s father—whose teasing always carried a whiff of terror—liked to chase his grandchildren with his electric carving knife; when we went to stay with my maternal grandmother, she tucked us up against the New England cold in an electric blanket and cooked us eggs in electric ‘coddlers’. Were the new carving knives sharper, the coddlers more comforting than their unautomated elders? In the early ’60s, how could you not believe in progress? Progress meant not just new toys but also the polio vaccine, the Civil Rights Act, the Pill; it meant women in the boardroom, men on the moon: a narrative of hard-won betterment, expanding horizons. Even if human nature stayed dirty and twisted, technology was going to bail us out.


In the ’70s, when the Western world’s progress narrative started to take a beating, my private New York school held its first Earth Day. I remember my disdain. School parents were paying x thousand dollars a year so their kids could go to the park and pick up garbage? I stayed home from Earth Day and read Proust.


Teenagers today are a little less jaunty in their cynicism. Something fundamental has changed in how we view the future, and this loss of faith is very different from an earlier generation’s nuclear anxieties: it is acknowledgement of a reality that’s already killing off creation.


To get the most dispassionate take on climate change and its consequences, you need only look at Big Oil’s internal warnings and forecasts over the last 50 years, or learn how the security and defense industries are planning to make a killing from the End Days. The flood is coming, and this time Shem and Ham won’t make it onto the Ark.


Just before Covid, I met an interior designer who specialized in planning billionaires’ climate-proof bunkers, most of them up the Hudson. All his clients insisted on non-disclosure agreements so details were tantalizingly sketchy, but the gist of it was: “My 11-year-old daughter loves horse-back riding, could you please add a stables and a riding ring to the underground sports complex?” He could.


The mega-rich still think they can buy their way out of Armageddon or at least keep out the hungry marauders, but most people are looking for more generous alternatives than Mars. How do we shift a world-economy based on growth and consumption? What models can we find from the past?


Religion has long provided a template for self-restraint, a weekly Sabbath where we give the Earth breathing space.


The 20th century’s secular faiths too show us that there’s a human need for shared sacrifice, a willingness to suspend self-fulfillment in order to build a utopian future—a need that dictators have commandeered to genocidal ends, but that we see a resurgence of today on a smaller scale, more democratic and spunky.


I’m a child of the ’60s, though, and some secret unregenerate part of me is still counting on there being a massive technological breakthrough that will rescue the world from extinction…




I’ve been living in rural France for twenty-three years now.


My morning begins by hauling a bucket of parsnip peelings and coffee grounds down to the compost heap we share with a collective of twenty-something-year-old artisans. I’m always curious to see what they’ve been eating: part snoopiness, part archaeology-of-the-present, part “how come their squash looks so much healthier than ours?” (it’s been another cataclysmic growing season).


What should be the pre-dawn darkness is in fact irradiated by the 24/7 prison-camp klieg lights of the soft-drinks factory next door: a factory originally founded by our neighbor’s father to transform local apricots into nectar, but which in recent years has morphed into a hulking Dutch multinational that imports its fruit pulp from Malaysia and Brazil.


On our other side is Guillaume, who is slowly turning his family’s farmland organic, bringing the dead soil back to life. But Guillaume’s walnut orchards are getting eaten away by a new Louis Vuitton factory the municipality rammed through in high secrecy on what is zoned as agricultural land.


Every day it seems there are more commuter cars roaring past our house and fewer hares, storks, or badgers in the fields. For every half-inch gained there’s a mile lost, and what counts as progress nowadays is an accumulation of small painstaking acts of repair.


Before my grandmother died, she divided up her goods among her grandchildren. I inherited the electric blanket, eerily white, made of some ghostly forerunner of fleece with a bulky and useless American plug. It sits on a high shelf like a horseshoe or a copper bed-warming pan—a relic of an age that believed in infinite resources, in the perfectibility of a world-without-end pure and gleaming as untrodden snow.


Fernanda Eberstadt is the author of five novels and one book of non-fiction. Her articles have appeared in journals including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vogue, Frieze, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, and the Times Literary Supplement.