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Slow down - you are entering the century of the crowd

SOME time this month, the nose-counters tell us, the population of the world will reach and pass the 5 billion mark. Who will the 5-billionth baby be? Where will he or she be born? Will father's nose or mother's eyes be recognizable to the oohing-and-ahing relatives? Will the 5-billionth human being on the planet be a happy baby? The nose-counters never know the important facts, so they stick to collective statistics, making much of their projection that the population of the world will double to 10 billion in a century.

Maybe you're a mobophile, a lover of crowds. But would you really want to be around in 2087, especially at rush hour?

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Five billion people, all in a hurry, is a serious matter. Ten billion constitutes a crisis. Where will they all fit? Will the 10-billionth baby of the future have to learn, as its first social lesson, to walk (not run) with tiny, tiny steps and elbows tucked in?

How the crowd is growing! Back in 1930, the population of the world was a mere 2 billion. The grandparents of people now grandparents themselves grew up in the still spacious world of the 19th century when nobody knew how many zeros there are in a billion. Thomas Hardy could begin a novel with a solitary man walking across an English heath - not another soul in sight. The American frontier was so luxurious with space that Daniel Boone could move further west every time he saw the smoke from a neighbor's chimney - his definition of an intolerable crowd.

Now you can get into a traffic jam, lining up at Yellowstone or crawling across a bridge to Cape Cod.

Summer beaches boast a density of bodies that rivals midtown Manhattan at lunch hour.

The queues on ski slopes in January match those at turnpike toll booths.

Nor is land all that is being saturated with the human presence. Winslow Homer painted his sailors on an expanse of water stretching to the horizon. Today the license plate is almost as necessary on water as on shore. A swimmer can hardly find a patch of lake water to splash in without being buzzed by a speedboat.

The sky above cities is thick with airplanes, like geese at migration time - only these mechanical birds are doing a lot of circling in the crowded sky, waiting for a place to set down on the crowded land.

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``Stack up'' - is this a term with the broadest possible applications for the future?

Technological regression is hardly the answer. On New York City streets where another significant term, ``gridlock,'' states the norm, even the bicycles swarming in and out of traffic apertures have become a problem. Last year, 19,148 cyclists were cited for violations. ``Bike-traffic lawlessness,'' cried the founder of the lobbying group, Pedestrians First.

But even pedestrians are are not always innocent as they sweep down metropolitan sidewalks like dual-flow tidal waves - strangers bumping against strangers without intimacy or even acknowledgment, wearing the same lonely faces in the city that came to be recognized as ``American Gothic'' in the country.

Indeed, the loneliness of the crowd may be worse than the loneliness of solitude. And everywhere you look, we are becoming a crowd.

Is there no space left anywhere in life for the luxury, the necessity of margins?

The African safari, the mountain hike in the Himalayas have become group tours.

There is something in everybody that needs to wander, and wandering requires space - space to play, space that can be planned to have no plan. But from now on we have been served notice. In the yin-yang cycle of withdrawal and return, withdrawal, out of necessity will become more and more of a mental discipline - an internal matter of ``spacing out.''

It is perfectly conceivable that food can be found for the masses of 2087 - even energy resources. But the question remains: Can the earth accommodate 10 billion dancers without forcing everybody to step on their partner's toes? And if so, is that really dancing?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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