LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Living in a Tree House - Richard Collett-White
Date of photography: 21st April 2017
Richard is an environmental activist and the tree house is not only his home, it is also his very own last line of defence against any further expansion of Heathrow Airport, with all the disastrous ill-effects that such a development will have on the environment of Londoners. The Third Runway will make Heathrow Airport the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire country and Richard feels strongly that it must be stopped. It is said that living in a treehouse is a lot like being on a sailing boat - it sways in the wind like a boat being tossed at sea - but this attractively poetic notion should not disguise the environmental reality we all face and it is anything but poetic. Our very survival as human beings now swings in the balance and if, as a society, we choose not to hear what the earth is surely telling us, we shall simply all perish, suffocated by the very air that we are so thoughtlessly poisoning.
Traditionally, in the minds of adventurous boys and young men, there has always lived the dream of building a tree house and then making it into a home. Many books and films have explored and illustrated such dreams and an entire industry has now grown up (especially in the USA) aimed at the design, construction and maintenance of tree houses, most of which are used for weekends in the holiday season but occasionally afford their proprietors a permanent residence. In the UK, the building of such houses is difficult, simply because most land is in private hands and the owners of woods and forests are almost invariably unwilling to permit such developments on their property. Local authorities exercise strict planning controls too and have been known to be quick to place severe restrictions on the construction of such temporary dwellings. However, for anyone in the UK keen to fulfil their fantasy and realise their dream of arboreal living, it has, in recent years, been possible to hire soundly-built, well-fitted tree houses, located in magnificent landscape in picturesque parts of the country.
For this current project, I was very keen to meet at first hand someone who had actually made their home in a tree house. So, during my very fruitful visit to Grow Heathrow, the ‘Intentional Community’ established in the shadow of Heathrow Airport and in the path of the proposed Third Runway, I was introduced to a young man called, Richard Collett-White. The community of which Richard is a member was set up over seven years ago, right in the centre of the little village of Sipson - unlike the nearby villages of Harmondsworth and Longford, which will be completely razed to the ground, Sipson is only to be partly demolished if the Airport’s current plans for expansion get the final go-ahead. The Grow Heathrow community comprises fifty or so people; it is largely ‘off-grid’ and as self-sufficient as possible, given its suburban location and the constraints of the site. Members of the community generate their own electricity, grow some of their own vegetables during the Summer months, and strive to live a carbon-neutral existence. Of course, they are also there to protest; together with the remaining local residents of the doomed villages, they oppose the further expansion of Heathrow on purely environmental grounds. (To learn more about this extraordinary settlement and what its members stand for, do please take time to read the webpage dedicated to the Grow Heathrow community which is also part of this project. )
Richard is a relative newcomer to the community, having arrived here about a year and a half ago, and some of the time, especially during the warmer months, he makes his home in one of the community’s four tree houses. Richard is a smart, friendly, highly articulate young man, though he’s a little enigmatic too; when answering questions, he chooses his words carefully. However, considering that I’m a complete stranger, I’m honoured that he has agreed to speak to me at all, and allowed me to capture his photograph for this project.
Richard began by telling me something about his own background: “I was born in Bedford, into the sort of family that people call ‘comfortable'. We were not rich but my parents had fulfilling jobs in the public and 'third' sectors. I'm one of three children and our childhood experience was generally free of hardship, at least not economic. I went to local comprehensive schools and was a bit of a book-worm, quite reclusive (though not completely at the expense of doing stuff) and from an early age, I took an interest in trying to understand society, humanity and the world around me. I spent a lot of time thinking about how people relate to one another and how we organise ourselves into societies. To be honest, I often felt like an outsider ... not always in the sense of being excluded but simply because I usually preferred observing to participating. It was a confidence thing, to some extent.”
Richard continued: “These days, most people would label me an environmental activist, or even better, a 'tree-hugger', but my understanding of environmental issues and their social and political dimensions is a relatively recent development in my life. Initially, I focussed more on the other stuff - the mechanisms that determine how wealth and power are distributed and maintained, and how the many injustices and inequalities that we see come about and perpetuate themselves. I think I was often quite frustrated by the fact that extreme poverty and privilege are accepted by many people as the natural or necessary order of things.”
Of course, like Richard, many of us struggle to understand these cruel inequalities, wondering for how long the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ will be allowed to keep widening without society disintegrating into rebellion and disorder. Thanks to the broad and ruthless application of the tenets of neoliberal capitalism, now promoted as the only viable political and economic order, the discrepancy between the super rich and the rest of the populous is vast: according to Oxfam, the wealth of the richest 1% is now as great as that of the rest of the world combined.
“My academic interests led me to study languages at university - French and Russian,” continues Richard. “Once you've finished your degree, you're expected to get on a fast track into the Diplomatic Service, or business, or at least teach. I've had a fair bit of conflict with my family for not doing so but I couldn't face any of those careers after university - I didn’t see them as a way of really getting at the root of the issues I'd explored, through studying literature and in wider reading, and of actually changing the system. By that time, I was much more politically aware and active; I started meeting people with similar outlooks, looking around for different projects and groups, and decided to come to Grow Heathrow instead. I’ve become very interested in attempts at more democratic, less hierarchical ways of organising our lives - how we can try to foster more healthy, supportive communities. Unfortunately, you don’t see many communities like this around, so we're kind of making it up as we go along. They either collapse of their own accord or get crushed by some external force. Without wanting to sound like some cranky old man, I definitely feel we've lost a lot of solidarity and a sense of the 'collective' in current society. And, given how essential they are for sustaining happy, functioning human beings, I don't see much hope, without them, of resolving the problems around us, many of which look like they're going to get a lot more brutal as time goes on.”
In response to my asking if he saw living in a commune as providing his ideal home, Richard replied: “I had no experience of living this way before - no one really does; 'commune' is a scare word now, evoking either Stalin or some abusive cult. University has some communal aspects to it but no, this is my first experience of this kind of thing. I wouldn't call this my ideal home but I am enjoying it a lot, and there are many benefits to living like this - flaws too, of course. I'd never say everyone should do the same or even that it will always be right for me; I'll change with age and my needs and interests will too. I've learnt a massive amount living here and felt very empowered and supported by the people I've met along the way, as cheesy as that sounds. It's a constant experiment - we’re testing out new things, practically and organisationally, all the time. We learn collectively what works and what doesn’t, and we try to be pragmatic about things, not dogmatic. Having a very fixed outlook would be pretty difficult to sustain here: there's a wide range of people, from different backgrounds, and everyone comes with a different set of motivations, so all ideas get challenged and discussed. I feel a massive sense of freedom in being able to spend my time on the things that interest me and I hope I'm helping make a difference by being here: I think people who visit - and there have been hundreds over the years - can be quite deeply changed by the place, and the project has definitely helped amplify the issue of the Third Runway. From a personal point of view, I also feel very lucky having such a cheap lifestyle; it means I don't have to earn very much and can be involved in activism that doesn't pay.”
“I have lived in one of the tree houses, mostly during the Summer, and you do feel very close to nature, certainly close to all the birds that wake you up every morning, which is a pretty incredible experience! Because the tree house is such a small and cosy place, you have to learn to live with only a few possessions around you. Even if you’re young, it's surprising how many things you can accumulate, things you barely ever use and don’t actually need. I'm not going to preach to others what they should or shouldn’t surround themselves with - every individual’s needs will always be different and you need a decent base level - but generally speaking, I don't think you need many individual 'things' to be content.”
I asked Richard how he might picture himself in five years’ time. After a moment’s hesitation, he says: “Well, as I’m only 24 now, to be honest, I find it hard to think that far ahead; maybe I'm just refusing to. I do think we plan a bit too much sometimes, and worry about changing paths through life. As I grow older, I might want to have greater stability or a more comfortable home, but at this time in my life, Grow Heathrow is the place for me.”
“The Third Runway is ultimately the main reason I moved here, wanting to find a frontline in the fight against climate change and seemingly irreversible environmental destruction. That was my primary motivation. I really felt, and still do feel, that we need to start drawing back from, and scaling down, these incredibly destructive projects, projects that will take us eventually to the brink of a stable climate and that are already contributing to so many crises around the world. I'm not 'anti-expert' or against all development, I just think we need to be selective, basically. The Third Runway will make Heathrow Airport the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire country and I think it has to be stopped, especially as demand is being driven overwhelmingly by frequent, leisure flyers. I also believe our campaign is winnable - we won ten years ago - and I want to be involved in the massive struggle that undoubtedly lies ahead of us. That's why I am here. I might enjoy living in the tree house, up in the air and surrounded by the birds, but I do try to keep my feet firmly on the ground, with my mind fully focussed on what's really going on throughout the world.”
Someone told me once that living in a treehouse is a lot like being on a sailing boat: it sways in the wind like a boat tossed on the ocean waves. A truly poetic notion but the environmental reality we face is anything but poetic; our own future as human beings seems to swing in the balance and if, as a society, we fail to hear what the earth is telling us, we will all perish, suffocated by the very air that we have so thoughtlessly poisoned.
I hope that Richard, all the others who are part of Grow Heathrow, and all those affiliated organisations around the world will succeed in making the rest of us see that hitting the pause button, and reversing our present course, is not the end of progress but rather a recognition that we have to work with Mother Nature, and cherish her, instead of trashing everything we touch. Behaving like masters of the universe will be of little consequence when we have destroyed the very planet that sustains us.
Text edited: 13th May 2017
Page modified: 27th March 2019