There was no official birth announcement. No television crew recorded the event. No one pinpointed the place of birth or whether the baby was a boy or girl. But if the calculations of The Population Institute are right, sometime on Monday, a baby was born who brought the total number of human beings on Earth to a new record: 5 billion.
Such a record doesn't hold very long, not even for a minute. By this weekend the 5-billionth baby will have been joined by another million. By the end of the year there will be 85 million more people sharing a planet that will not have grown by a single inch. We cannot add acres to the Earth's surface, the way we add rooms to a house, to accommodate new members of the human family.
It took until 1830 for the Earth's population to reach 1 billion. It took 11 years to reproduce the latest billion. There may be 3 billion more of us by 2021. And we still don't know precisely how many people this planet can sustain.
The experts huddling around the cradle of the 5-billionth baby talk about "the carrying capacity" of Earth as if it were a plane instead of a planet hurtling through space. How many people, they ask, do we have room for? How many meals are there aboard, how many seats, how much fuel?
They debate the limits of Earth's "resources." They ask how humans can use them to sustain our species. We have learned, after all, how to turn a desert, acre by acre, into fields and an ocean, ounce by ounce, into drinking water. We can harvest the coal inside mountains and the oil inside the Earth for our own purposes. What are the limits? How far can we push them?
But from my vantage point at this birthday party, I wonder about this whole point of view. I suspect that this press of population has influenced our attitudes toward the place that humans should occupy in the world.
When we talk about the "carrying capacity" of the planet, it is as if Earth were here strictly to support us. We talk about "resources" as if mountains and oceans and animals were ours to use. There are so many of us now that we think about the world increasingly as the private property of our own species.
Even in our country, where there is no longer a population explosion, it is remarkably hard to find some place that doesn't have a human stamp on it. Nature is no longer our everyday habitat. We visit it, vacation in it. Even as tourists to nature, we queue up for a raft trip down the Colorado, we drive into our national parks.
If we did not pave Paradise, we put up a parking lot next door and pay admission. When we save nature, it's in carefully designated preserves and tree museums.
I once passed a stretch of land in North Dakota untouched by the plow. It was so unique that it was protected and pointed out as virgin prairie. In California last month, I visited a park of giant redwoods, saved decades ago from lumberyards. On a trail well-tended and well-trod in Muir Woods, I had to imagine what it was like to be alone in a thousand-year-old grove without a rented car and a refreshment stand.
It is rare to feel like one of many species on Earth. Rare when we experience a sense of belonging to the landscape. Rare when we come to nature not to own it or develop it but to be in it. We are so many, so dominant that the other species are present in our everyday lives as pests and pets . . . or food.
We have also used the Third World as our resource, our raw material. Now, with the relentless pressure of its own people, this world turns to its own development. It's the "developing world" that hacks Brazilian forest into farmland and subdivides African plains into suburbs. There is less sentiment for sharing space, more need to use space. As the numbers grow, people think less about living in concord with the Earth and more about working it.
A species that has controlled its death rate can still control its birthrate. The experts ask whether Earth can support 5 billion people. A much harder question for this birthday is whether 5 billion people can support Earth.