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Caring for butterflies, plants, and people: The dilemmas of an urban ecological restoration project

Conference contribution
Authors Maris Boyd Gillette
Published in Swedish Anthropological Association Conference, 19-21 April, Uppsala
Publication year 2018
Published at School of Global Studies, Social Anthropology
Language en
Subject categories Social Anthropology


The decimation of milkweed in the American Midwest has contributed to a dramatic decline in the number of Monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies require milkweed for reproduction; the species lays eggs on only this flowering plant. A major contributor to milkweed’s disappearance is the Monsanto Corporation’s pesticides, now an essential component of American farming. In St Louis, Missouri, where Monsanto is headquartered, the city government has partnered with nonprofit greening organizations and neighborhood groups to plant pocket prairies and milkweed gardens, in the explicit hope of attracting Monarch butterflies to urban neighborhoods where many children have never seen this once ubiquitous species. In this paper I explore the contradictions entailed in caring for butterflies, plants, and people in the St Louis Milkweed for Monarch project. Based on my participation, participant-observation, and quantitative research that I conducted as a social science researcher of the initiative’s “social success,” I argue that well-intentioned expressions of care for butterflies and plants were built upon structures of neglect for people. As a consequence, a widely-appreciated restoration initiative failed to achieve its “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

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