October 21st, 2011 by

By Katrina Marland

I’m often surprised and amused by what does and doesn’t get attention in today’s media. Some stories are latched onto and hyped up; others are almost entirely ignored. Sometimes it seems like the only way to bring the proper attention to an issue is to pull some kind of crazy stunt that will bring the media running, even if they only want to find out why on earth you would ever do such a thing. But when I read that a man in England spent 48 hours locked in an airtight box with a bunch of plants, I have to admit, stunt or not, I was intrigued.

Dr. Stewart was sealed inside the plant-filled box for 48 hours. (Credit: The Eden Project)

The man was Dr. Iain Stewart, a professor of geosciences at England’s Plymouth University. He constructed an airtight, 130-square-foot box inside the Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome — a botanical garden in Cornwall. He filled it with 150 houseplants, added a hammock, a portable toilet, an exercise bike and a laptop; then walked on in; and sealed the door. For 48 hours straight, the only oxygen he had available to him was the oxygen produced by those plants. They were also the only things keeping his air clean — removing the carbon dioxide that his own breathing produced.

To me, this was one of those odd moments of clarity in which you realize something you thought you already knew. Kind of like when you know that 10 miles is a long distance, but you don’t realize how long until you try to run it. Objectively, we know that plants produce oxygen, absorb CO2 and generally clean and maintain the air we breathe. But that relationship becomes a lot more real when you’re locked in a box knowing that your life depends on a handful of those natural air filters.

Overall, the plants did their thing. They photosynthesized away while Stewart read, slept, worked and exercised. Other than some headaches from the difference in oxygen levels (essentially the same as altitude sickness — without the altitude), he fared just fine.

But why put yourself through the rigors of such an experiment, not to mention doing it in a clear box in the middle of a public place? As Stewart told The Independent, “That box, this experiment, is the planet.”

It is a disturbingly accurate analogy, if you think about it. The box and the air in it being our atmosphere, the houseplants being the forests and plants (yes, I’m counting algae) that provide our oxygen and Dr. Stewart being all of us … well, what’s the difference? It’s hard to grasp because the world just looks so darn big, but we live in the same conditions, with limited air and a finite number of oxygen producers. Our box is just much, much bigger.