Since Helen Wu’s wedding last year, her friends and colleagues have repeatedly asked her when she will have a baby, but her answer doesn’t change.
“No,” says the committed environmentalist, who is in her 40s and childless.
“As I grow older, more and more I think human beings are very destructive to the world.”
A production stage manager at a theme park, Wu first started paying attention to the natural world as a keen hiker in high school.
She says there are a number of reasons why she lives an environmentally aware life, which for her includes not having children.
“What about nature?” she asks as an example.
“We are consuming it much faster than it can replenish itself.”
A lot of environmentally minded people worry about how many children they should have.
In 2019, when Britain’s Prince Harry interviewed conservationist Jane Goodall for Vogue, he mentioned he wanted to limit the number of children in his family.
“Two, maximum!” he said.
“But I’ve always thought: this place is borrowed. And, surely, being as intelligent as we all are, or as evolved as we all are supposed to be, we should be able to leave something better behind for the next generation.”
Many parents concerned about the natural world try to avoid single-use plastics, steer clear of baby wipes made from plastic resins, and recycle as much as possible.
They opt for reusable nappies and second-hand baby clothes and toys, and take their children to parks and gardens to experience nature.
For her part, Wu, who is a graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, enjoys the company of her twin nieces and has them over to dinner regularly.
But she is concerned about the fate of a rapidly heating world and the destruction of so many wild places.
She works to reduce her and her husband’s environmental impact and lugs all her recyclable plastic to a collection point to make sure it gets to a recycling plant. She tries to avoid all single-use plastic bags and takes her own bags to wet markets.
“But it’s very difficult to influence people around you,” she says.
“They think it’s inconvenient and dirty, and you have to wash your bag.”
Wu thinks people have to make important decisions when they have children.
“If I had to bear a child I would raise them in a way that’s hurting the environment less than normally people do,” she says.
She worries that Hongkongers often believe that surrounding their babies with new plastic is hygienically important, and have little understanding of its environmental cost.
“People want to give their children the best, but they’re surrounded by plastic and losing their sensations to real food and what things really look like,” she says, adding that some children don’t seem to understand that food is grown and harvested because they never see it unpeeled or unprepared.
“Children don’t know what vegetables look like, what fruit looks like.”
She is concerned about the emerging environmental difficulties today’s children will almost certainly have to confront in the decades to come.
Climate change is already bringing more frequent extreme weather to the world, including floods, droughts, wildfires and fresh water shortages, with worse predicted as the world continues to warm.
“That was my struggle. I am hesitant to have a child,” Wu says.
“I don’t feel comfortable or confident that I can provide a better world for them. I am always wondering how many generations will last, treating the world like this.”
Wu’s husband doesn’t want children either, but more for political reasons than environmental concerns.
They are among an increasing proportion of Hongkongers who are deciding not to have children, with the total fertility rate – the average number of children born to 1,000 women during their lifetime – falling from 1,051 in 2019 to 869 last year, the lowest in 40 years.
Birth numbers are also falling in China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the US, and much of the world is settling into a natural population decline, according to a Lancet report published last year.
It’s difficult to tease out how much of a factor the fear of the worsening environment is in the birth-rate decline, but it certainly plays a role for many women.
An increasing understanding of the grim reality of warming global temperatures and record hot summers has encouraged many would-be and new parents to consider their ecological impact.
Environmentally sensitive toy and clothing lines and second-hand outlets of children’s toys, clothes and gear have sprung up to cater for the evolving needs of parents.
Horror stories about landfills clogged with hills of disposable nappies – diapers to many – have prompted a shift away from the plastic convenience of “use and discard” and prompted some manufacturers to come up with lines of more eco-friendly disposables.
Victoria Chuard, 34, has lived in Hong Kong for 13 years and has two children, aged three and six.
As well as working in the finance sector, she runs a children’s eco-friendly goods outlet called Petit Tippi, and a cloth nappy line called Just Peachy, which sells reusable nappies with a sustainably sourced inner pad in a laminated outer liner.
There has been solid growth in demand for green baby products, Chuard says, and these days she even runs monthly cloth nappy workshops for novice parents.
New parents are increasingly interested in reducing their consumption by taking advantage of second-hand babyware like cribs, change tables and prams, and even nappies, she adds.
Twenty-four cloth nappies is the number the cloth nappy community recommends as a good amount to see a child through babyhood, Chuard says, which would cost around US$1,000 (S$1,364) when buying top-line reusables; that compares with around US$3,000 required for buying up to 6,000 disposable nappies over the same period, a number widely cited as the amount of disposable nappies a child can go through.
One cloth nappy could even replace as many as 1,000 disposables, she adds.
Much cheaper, old-fashioned flat terry-cloth nappies are also available online and in shops and new parents can find modern fasteners to fasten them.
Chuard’s interest in finding alternatives to disposable nappies began when she was first pregnant.
She was concerned about the chemicals used in disposable nappies and how they would affect her newborn’s skin, and was worried about the damage they might cause to the natural world.
These days, she is reasonably confident the world will wake up and change course to wind back climate change and avert environmental catastrophe.
“It’s already happening,” she says, “and the next generation will be even more aware.”
Having a child was not an automatic decision for Fion Cheung, 39, who is in charge of wetlands initiatives for migratory waterbirds at WWF Hong Kong.
“My husband and I studied environmental life science at the University of Hong Kong, so we are quite aware of the future, especially the environmental change coming,” she says.
“So before we decided to have a baby, we had this kind of discussion.”
They decided to go ahead, and their daughter, Yuet Ching-to, is now two years old.
Now their chief concern is how to reduce their child’s ecological footprint.
“So we don’t use the one-off diapers, we use cotton cloth nappies. I also insist on breastfeeding my baby to reduce the reliance on milk from cows, even though it’s not convenient.”
She and her husband acquired a lot of second-hand baby gear, including a baby carrier, clothes, a breast-milk pump and even cotton nappies, to reduce their consumption of manufactured items.
They also work on reducing their water and electricity consumption.
Like many environmentally conscious Hongkongers, Cheung says the government has neither led the way on sustainability nor properly encouraged or financed an environmentally sensitive way of life.
“I can’t think of a single thing the government has done to encourage people to go that way,” she says.
Still, choosing to live and work in ways that minimise the effect on the natural world is not difficult with a little planning, she says.
“Many people would like to buy a lot of toys, so they can inspire their babies in different ways. I think the best toy you can find is in nature. I don’t have many toys at home; I take her to the park, watching the crickets and the butterflies. Her response is really, really great.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.