The train I take every day to Rome goes past many acres of farm land and (literally) through what was once the Etruscan hills. There are a couple of little bits of Etruscan stuff in Santa Marinella, left sitting there unregarded for many centuries before anyone thought to preserve them as precious relics of a vanished civilization. The Etruscans may have gone, but the people who remembered them are still there, how many centuries down the road. But these people, these good Italians, have a demographic chart that looks like a pyramid on its head. A great, broad base supported by a tiny point. The Italian birth rate is one of the lowest in Europe.
Population: 58,145,320 (July 2008 est.)
0-14 years: 13.6% (male 4,086,951/female 3,842,765)
15-64 years: 66.3% (male 19,534,247/female 19,024,776)
65 years and over: 20% (male 4,864,189/female 6,792,393) (2008 est.)
total: 42.9 years
male: 41.4 years
female: 44.4 years (2008 est.)
Population growth rate: -0.019% (2008 est.)
Total fertility rate: 1.3 children born/woman (2008 est.)
Who is going to be left to remember them?
It seems to be true that nearly everyone who uses the internet lives in a city and I think that my year in a little rural English village, given the short bus and train hops that would bring one to Liverpool or Manchester, could not really be considered an example of what I am thinking of today. But I have lived in the real Big Empty, in the North West Territories where it is advisable to take a gun and survival gear with you in the truck if you are going to go to the next town to buy something. And in a place like that, the absolute necessity, for simple survival, of having other people around comes home to you.
I think the de-population people mostly live in cities too. They probably take crowded commuter trains to work in their internet-equipped offices every day. They probably get a coffee at a crowded coffee bar and have to dodge busy traffic to get a paper. Most of us are used to this kind of thing. It would not surprise me to hear that the entire staff of a group like the Optimum Population Trust live in central London. And certainly, living cheek-by-jowl with two or five or eleven million people can really put one off the idea of more people.
But go out into the country and things are different. You realise very quickly how much you need others. In city life, other people are a burden, something to be escaped as often and for as long as one can. But I can well imagine what it must have been like to have lived in the middle ages in some country village, in winter, with the wolves in the woods and the real and immediate possibility of starvation held off only by the combined labour of your own family and those of your neighbours.
The problem of how one lives without a village or a family or at least a parish church, alone and dependent upon one's own resources, can only become real when one is faced with finding enough food and fuel to keep a belly full and hands warm for another day. I've done it a bit, and I can vouchsafe that a hell of a lot of work goes into making a fire and heating a cottage, boiling a pot of water, work that one doesn't necessarily feel like doing immediately upon waking.
I used to wonder what it must have been like when my little country cottage was first built in the late 1790s. What would you have done if you were a single person, perhaps a widow, and you woke up sick with the flu and really didn't have the strength to cut wood or haul in coal from the shed. The answer, was that you had a village of people to help. Connexions who would miss you at Matins and be seriously worried by Evensong. Who would call upon you and help you. You had a family. You had neighbours. And even if you didn't, you had the Church.
I would be very interested to know more about rural demographics and I'm sure there is someone out there doing the footwork, counting people and poking into records offices. I think I might just do a little poking about myself.