Writing Diary – #4: Getting Back on the Bus

Yesterday, I fell off the writing bus. I didn’t write anything. After staying up too late writing the night before, I slept in. Instead of journaling and working on the book, as planned, I found myself distracted by one false digital emergency after another.

Today, without childcare, I’m planning to find time to write later in the day. But for now, I want to reflect on the idea that writing a book is an exercise in returning to the work, again and again.

A bad day, or even a terrible week, doesn’t matter. Writing exists in the here and now. If things don’t go as planned, the solution is to return to the writing.

I’ve come to see writing as similar to meditation and breath work. In some forms of meditation, the goal is to focus one’s attention on the breath. As the mind inevitably wanders after a few seconds or minutes, the task is return to the breath.

Writing follows a similar pattern. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it doesn’t. You write, then you drift. Getting upset only exacerbates the situation. The key is to come back to the words, just as one would return to breath.

Every day, I make a concerted effort to write. But, there are days, like yesterday, when it just doesn’t work out.

On those days, the solution is wait and come back the next day. Or next week. Start over, again and again.…

Writer’s Diary #3 – Linking Habits

This morning, I wrote for 5 minutes while the coffee was brewing, and another 5 minutes while I drank it. I got an early start, and wrote at the typewriter. Inspired by James Clear’s Atomic Habits idea of linking a habit (coffee) with something you want to do (write this Writer’s Diary), I wrote this. The idea, which stuck in my mind when I read Clear’s book years ago, is of making things one wants to do stickier, and more likely to be done, by linking them to established habits.

The first thing I do every morning is drink a cup of coffee. Could coffee be used to create a habit of writing a journal, planning the day, posting an article, going for a run, and working on a book? It seemed ambitious, but this morning, it felt promising.

This approach to writing this diary raised a question: If I want to write more regularly, in this diary, is it better to work by hand, or to type, or to dictate? While there is no one way to write, I’ve found the methods are different. For me, writing by hand is slower, more fluid. Writing on a computer is faster, but I think and edit more as I go. Voice dictation, which I sometimes use while walking, is a good way to get an idea down, but it’s not so good to develop an idea. Each medium of writing is different, but whether I’m typing, handwriting, or dictating, I think linking to a coffee habit is promising.

This morning, I typed.

This evening, I revised.…

Writer’s Diary #2 – About Nutgrafs

There is a concept in journalism known as the nutgraf, a portmanteau of the words “nutshell” and “paragraph.” It’s a paragraph in a news story, placed near the beginning, that summarizes what’s coming and explains the main point or purpose of the story.

So what does the ‘nutgraf’ of a book look like? It’s a paragraph, placed early on, that summarizes the book’s main purpose, argument, and structure.

My first book had two. The first, in the preface, was 450 words in and 162 words long.

How does a gold rush shape the lives of those who live alongside it? There is no single answer. Dwelling on the hopes and the dreams, the successes and the failures, the strategies and the tactics of those after el oro in the most impoverished region of Latin America’s second-most inequitable country tells unexpected stories of the production, accumulation, and transformation of value. I offer contradictory stories in three parts. In the first, gold is a high-value export commodity, which makes panning the core of a rural livelihood strategy and a complement to subsistence household production. In the second, the metal is embedded in a cash economy, which offers a way for miners from the Chocó and elsewhere to attempt to accumulate a little cash. In the third, gold is part of global legal and extralegal flows of capital, in which value undergoes processes of transformation, rather than creation. Together these three parts, which each consist of two chapters, create a study of gold embedded in informal and precarious shifting livelihood strategies.

The second nutgraph was in the Introduction, 450 words in, and 262 words long.

This book considers the ways Antonio and others experienced the boom times of a gold rush and the ways that this gold rush was embedded in wider legal and extralegal economies. It would be easy to fall into a narrative found in much writing about the commodification of nature and natural resource extraction, but I strive for a different complexity by weaving together stories about the lives of artisanal and small-scale miners and those who live in the communities where these miners work. Gold enables some forms of autonomous livelihood, even as it disables others. Mines create freedom and unfreedom; they are at once destructive and constructive. The conditions of extraction and the environments affected and the miners themselves matter at least as much as the mere presence of mining. This book offers insight on the contradictory ways that gold both liberates and subjugates as mines become sites of exploitation and emancipation. What results  is a twofold investigation: First, stories of lived experience drawing on the lives of a handful of miners on artisanal and small-scale gold mines. Second, stories of money laundering through gold by cocaine traffickers and speculation on mining projects by multinational corporations wherein gold facilitates other economic processes. These accounts, nevertheless, remain stories from the margins, because their setting is the poorest and most discriminated department in Colombia and because the stories focus on those who make a living through “precarious” and “informal” shifting livelihood strategies—strategies which themselves offer a certain freedom, especially when compared to the nonexistent alternatives.

Both are examples of a certain conciseness I was striving for in Shifting Livelihoods: they appeared early, were short, and explained the purpose and outline of the entire book. Each took, I suspect, weeks to write.

I am working on the introduction to my new book about Makeshift, and today I focused on the paragraph, which comes after the opening scene. As I thought about it, I thought it should be at the bottom of page two, about 350 words in, and about 300 words long. This paragraph should flow from the first scene, which I think of as an “ethnographic short,” and connect to the next. For the short, I’m on the floor, lost, trying to work out the purpose for a new writing project.

My task, for an hour this morning, was to revise a paragraph into something under 300 words that makes the point of the book and ends with a transition to the next section. I failed. While I am familiar with the formula, I ended up with 1,000 words.

This means either:

  • Makeshift doesn’t need a 300-word nutgraf;
  • Makeshift needs a 300-word nutgraf, and I need to move the 1,000 word on the purpose of the book to come later.

I’ll tackle this decision, first thing, tomorrow. I suspect the wright answer is the second.…

Writer’s Diary #1: Feathering Your Nest

Today was a good day for writing, even though I didn’t write a word for the book.

Writing a book is like running a marathon, after a marathon, I think. Having never run a marathon, I don’t know if that’s true, but I suspect it is. Why? A book is hard work. It takes a long time. In my experience, writing a book cannot be rushed. Finishing requires consistency over the long hall. To write a book is to keep coming back to the words. Not over days or weeks, but months and years. My first book, including my dissertation, took at least four years. My second, including the web project, took two. The one I am working on is in its fourth. Writing takes time, especially if, like most of us, one has to juggle many responsibilities. So, it’s important to celebrate the small victories, as one would a good training run.

Today was a day of such small victories. I feathered my nest to prepare for the hard work to come: I organized the office, arranged papers, threw away old cables, cleaned my desk, tested equipment, emptied drawers, charged batteries, swept the floor, etc. It took the morning, and by two o’clock, I was spent and anxious. Had I done anything? I had. Preparing to work is work. A big project requires physical and mental space. But, I was grumpy—I had written nothing. So, I resolved to write.

I planned the afternoon with Cal Newport’s Time Block Planner—write this diary, run, and post something. I completed the plan, made dinner, baked bread, washed dishes, wrote a letter, and dug out Virginia Woolf’s diary which I read in bed.

I didn’t work on the book project directly, and an outside observer might have thought my day was procrastination. But, it wasn’t. It was a good day of preparation to write with serious intent.…

The Challenge of Ultra-Processed Food

The Challenge of Ultra-Processed Food

Last fall, my students and I enjoyed George Monbiot’s Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (Penguin Random House, 2023). Monbiot explores agriculture’s widespread and devastating impact on climate change, and advocates for regenerative agriculture, perennial grains, and protein grown in vats. His is book is a compelling critique of large-scale industrial agriculture, and the local and organic food movements. While I found Regenesis provocative at the time, it left me wondering about the rural livelihoods of agrarian peoples around the world. More recently, I’ve stated to wonder about health impacts of Ultra-Processed Food, a category in which vat grown non-farm protein must fall?

I came across the concept of ultra-processed food in Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People: Why We Can’t Stop Eating Food That Isn’t Food (Penguin Random House, 2023). I read van Tulleken’s book out of interest, after reading Daniel Lieberman’s books on evolutionary anthropology—Exercised (Pantheon, 2021) and The Story of the Human Body (Knopf Doubleday, 2014)—and Herman Pontzer’s Burn (Penguin, 2021). One thing to take these three books is the idea of mismatch disease, that is diseases caused more by our indoor, sedentary, calorie-dense lifestyles than our evolutionary ancestors would have experienced in the long span of human history. Reading them alongside van Tulleken, it seems clear that ultra processed food has its own health impacts, because we’re simply not evolved to eat a lot of the food that our industrial food systems produce.

Thinking about Regenesis and ultra-processed food, I suspect that farm-free and vat-grown food that Regenesis describes is, clearly, ultra-processed food. This gives me pause to optimism about vat-grown food, which might cause its own mismatch diseases. What does this mean for food systems in the context of climate change? One the one hand, large-scale industrial agriculture is unsustainable. On the the other hand, ultra-processed foods bring their own health consequences.

I suspect part of the solution involves more real farming, ingredients. But, the question is, can the planet handle that, and can our bodies handle the alterantive?…

In Praise of Trains

I write this on a sleeper train to Montreal from Moncton: the VIA Rail Ocean. Because of my general antipathy to air travel and because of their equivalent price, I splurged for an upper berth. VIA called and upgraded me for a cabin for one. This is the first long-distance train I’ve taken in a long time, certainly since learning to drive, and I have forgotten the way trains facilitate flow.

By flow, I’m thinking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s, the Hungarian-American psychologist, concept of the mental state of being immersed in an activity, with focus, energy concentration, and enjoyment, so that one loses track of time and feels “in the zone” (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins, 2009.) Although Csikszentmihalyi means what occurs when skill is matched to challenge, I am referring to the feeling of being fully immersed in the present.

The train facilitates flow.

The train has been an unexpected time to think, daydream, and write. Neither driving nor flying facilitates flow in the same way. Part of the reason is that the train is slow. I left Moncton yesterday at 5:30 pm, and I won’t get into Montreal until 10 am. After that, I go to Ottawa. It’s a 20-hour train journey.

The same flight takes a couple of hours, and requires rushing, people, stimulation, a terrible schedule, security, and lots of interruptions. While fast, flights don’t create time. The train can.

The semester was busy: four classes, a grant application, and a few writing projects. The train has been an unexpected gift of time.

I’ve graded term papers, entered grades, had dinner, stretched, meditated, sent some messages, had a beer, slept, had a leisurely breakfast, and written this. The steady sound of the train passing over the tracks lends itself to flow.

Prior to the pandemic, I used to travel for academic conferences. At times, they left me exhausted. But, at their best, conferences were space to engage ideas, to think about other people’s work, and to read. The travel to and from the conference were part of the fun, which is why I’ve not been terribly excited about online or hybrid conferences. I never seem to take the time. But, next conference, if I can swing it, I think train travel has air travel beat, precisely because it makes time.…

Letter to Prospective Students

So you are looking for a graduate supervisor?

When you are a graduate student, after all is said and done—after the ideas and the coursework and the reading and the research—your job is to put words on the page for your dissertation, for research articles, for grant applications, and for job applications. It is the words we write as scholars that make the research we do visible and help us reach our audiences and build our careers.

The words are the hard part, I think.

As a supervisor, I work hard to help students with their writing. I am always interested in students who are eager to learn the craft of ethnography and ethnographic writing, as part f their graduate work.

My research focuses on writing fine-grained ethnography and on environmental anthropology. My areas are environmental anthropology, economic anthropology, political economy, and the anthropology of resource extraction. I have written on a gold rush of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the Chocó in northwestern Colombia, on the impacts of the buzz phase of resource extraction, on citizenship and violence, on alternative futures in New Brunswick. I am particularly interested in rural life and livelihoods and agrarian change. My geographical areas of expertise are Colombia, particularly the Magdalena River and Chocó regions, and the Canadian Maritimes, particularly New Brunswick and the Saint John River Valley.

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Brunswick and an Adjunct Research Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa. I am part of the International Development Studies programme at the University of New Brunswick, I run a workshop on post-extractivism with Donald Kingsbury, I am the former English book review editor for Anthropologica, and I coordinate the Human Environments Workshop with Noah Pleshet.

If you’re interested in working with me, I can supervise M.A. students in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and M.IDST and Ph.D. IDST students in the Interdisciplinary studies program. I can also co-supervise M.A. or Ph.D. students in the Anthropology programme at Carleton University.

I sometimes employ undergraduate and graduate research assistants to help with my work as part of the Human Environments Workshop to write articles, and to support ongoing research. I am open to collaborative writing and research projects as a supervisor. I am also open to students pursuing their own independent research and working with me in a supervisory capacity.

Topics I am interested in:

  • Exploring the process of writing ethnography and developing the art and craft of writing as a way of constructing analysis, advancing arguments, and telling stories.
  • Investigating the ways resource extraction reshapes places and the people who live there.
  • Examining how natural resource projects create social impacts long before operations begin, during what Marieka Sax and I call the buzz phase.
  • Understanding how rural Afro-desendent communities in the Colombian Pacific pursue place-based rural life and livelihoods.
  • Understanding aquatic-histories of agrarian change and rural livelihoods in the Magdalena region of Colombia.
  • Building alternative narratives for the future.

Updated April 28, 2023

Why I Suck at Email and Social Media

As academics, we get a lot of emails. Sometimes, my response time can vary from a few seconds to a few months. I’m not a Luddite, but if I want to prioritize the most important work, such as writing articles, books, lectures, and supervising students, then email has to come last. To free myself from the tyranny of email, I try to follow a few rules—often, I fail.

I try not to read or reply in the morning, and I attempt to avoid checking emails on weekends. I schedule emails to be sent the next morning and access them only on my computer.

As I get older, I try to avoid social media.

No email or social media on mobile devices.

So, what do I do when I’m not writing or checking email? Sometimes, although not often enough, I play with my children. Other times, I work in the garden, run errands, repair a crumbling farmhouse, ski, or find other ways to avoid writing. Not enough, but still significant, is the time I spend reading, drafting, transcribing, revising, editing, or engaging in other writing-related activities.

Often, I try to walk.

Writing a book is a time-consuming endeavour. It requires years of fieldwork, thousands of pages of notes, and a considerable amount of cutting, polishing, revising, and editing. In my written work, I come across as thoughtful, articulate, and well-written. However, I am not as articulate over email or social media.

The same goes for social media.

If I can write a good sentence for every unwritten post and unliked tweet, I am happy. I do post sometimes, but my posts are mostly about the process rather than my work or current affairs. I have no hot takes or quick analyses.

I am a slow writer.

I spend a lot of time on the computer, but I struggle with email and social media. I want to focus on writing. I often fail.

So, by all means, get in touch. I may reply, and if I do, it’ll be late in the day.

Updated 29 April 2023.

Peak Conference? Let’s Hope So

By Daniel Tubb, published in Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society.

We really have to stop meeting like this. The annual anthropology meetings will be in Vancouver from November 20 to 24, 2019, and while I am excited, I also know “we have to stop meeting like this.” At least, this is how mathematician Malabika Pramanik put the problem of academic conferences in her article in The Tyee. The article summarized a report by Seth Wynes and Simon D. Donner (Department of Geography, University of British Columbia) about the greenhouse gas emissions caused by academic travel by members of the UBC Vancouver campus.

The report makes for sober reading. The major finding is that greenhouse gas emissions from air travel make up between 63% and 73% of the total annual emissions from all operations of the UBC campus. The biggest culprit, representing over half of the total, is short duration trips of about five nights to travel in-person to attend conferences.

In short, the problem is professors, but also students and postdoctoral researchers, who fly to conferences like the 2019 CASCA/AAA meetings in Vancouver.

In fact, only a small fraction of people is responsible for the majority of emissions. Between 8 and 11% of the UBC population produces 50% of those emissions. On my own campus in Fredericton, I suspect I am one of that small number of people. 

I calculated my greenhouse gas emissions from travel (using an online calculator) and wrote about it in July. In the last 18 months, I took flights from Fredericton to Cuba via Toronto for a conference of anthropologists (emitting 675 kg of CO 2 for the journey); to San Francisco via Toronto for another conference (767 kg); to Washington D.C. via Montreal for a conference of geographers (337 kg); to Toronto for a conference of Latin Americanists (243 kg); and to Bogotá via Toronto for fieldwork (743 kg). If you add it all up, all these flights end up contributing about 2,750 kg in CO2 emissions.

Many of us are in the same position, but must spewing greenhouse gases be an occupational hazard of attending conferences?

Clearly, things have to change.

On the last weekend in September, 500,000 people marched in Montreal calling for tackling climate change and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on global warming gives us until 2030 to reduce emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels.  

Let’s hope Vancouver 2019 is peak conference: The last time so many people travel so far for so little time.

Of course, there have long been calls for individuals to make changes to their behaviour. A colleague of mine made a decision a decade ago to stop travelling more than once a year for academic purposes. Vancouver will be the last time I fly so far just for a conference, because cutting back on flying is the biggest single thing I can to reduce my greenhouse gas emissions. 

But, individual choices to not attend a conference can only be part of the solution.

The UBC report suggests some ways to reduce flying: using local carbon offsets, requiring economy air travel because it produces far less emissions than business travel, developing behavioural incentives, creating a centralized system of tracking travel emissions, and improving access to teleconferencing and information and communications technology on campus.

Yet, a better video link or not going is not going to cut it, all of the time.

I work in a small city and province, and conferences feel important. Large conferences aren’t just opportunities to present one’s work, but are also a chance to meet new people, to see old friends, to hear about cutting-edge research, to discusses ideas, to continue collaborations, and to pitch new work. All of this is hard to do over video.

Conferences are important, and while my plan is to travel less, to travel closer to home, and to stay on the ground, we need structural changes in how we organize conferences as well.

What might it mean to organize a CASCA conference differently? Could we promote and facilitate online attendance for those prefer to stay at home? What about hosting two small regional conferences in parallel with live-streaming of panels and events? Might only holding conferences in big hub cities with excellent public transport and a critical mass of people reduce emissions significantly? What about alternating annually between the West Coast and Central Canada? Might holding a conference every eighteen months or biannually be one way to cut emissions by a third? Might only holding conferences at the same time and place as a bigger conference result in significant greenhouse gas emission savings—should we only have CASCA at the same time as the AAA or Congress? Hopefully these and more questions will be discussed in the cosponsored roundtable addressing precisely this issue at the upcoming 2019 CASCA/AAA meetings.

While there are a lot of questions and no easy answers, Malabika Pramanik is right. We do have to stop meeting like this. We need to figure out how to do conferences differently, because eleven years is not that long to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45%, and at least for universities, conferences are one of the biggest emitters.

Cite as: Tubb. Daniel, 2019, “Peak conference? Let’s hope so.” *Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 13.2.…

In Praise of Small Places

Small towns can be a great place to get your head down and get things done.

By Daniel Tubb, published in Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 13.1.

There is a North American phenomenon of young people from rural areas and small towns and medium-sized cities moving to the Big City. In Canada, the destinations are Toronto or Montreal, Vancouver or Calgary. In the US, they are New York or Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco. But are big places so necessary for creative work?

Richard Florida suggested in 2004 that innovation is urban, and that the “creative class” requires cities. Dense populations and cafes and bars and restaurants and theatres and concerts and bookstores are the intoxicating fuel of creative people. Sarah Schulman, in a way, eviscerates this idea with her haunting critique of the gentrification of urban spaces and the mind, which occurred in New York after the AIDS crisis. Still, she celebrates the authentic artistic scene of urban spaces that she experienced moving to gritty and vibrant New York in the 1970s and 1980s.

Academia has its own narrative where urban places promote creativity and productivity. A class system of prestige accrues to the large, cosmopolitan, research-intensive universities. We seek them out as undergraduate students, as graduate students, and as faculty. They are intensely competitive. Getting in as a student is hard—as faculty well-nigh impossible. As with the trope of successful people in the Big City, if a scholar doesn’t go to a Top University, it is seen as they couldn’t, not as they didn’t want to.

Why such reticence to the small places and their small universities? One is what I’ve come to think of as prejudice against rurality—to echo Wendell Berry’s observation about the prejudice against country people. We need to blow up the academic and social prejudices against small towns and flyover states and the backwoods and their universities. This might need an intersectional perspective to consider people in place, but I digress. What I want to extend here is an invitation to the freedom one can find on the periphery.

My ticket out of a village in Eastern Ontario was a small university. Applying for graduate school and then jobs, I felt the prestige of the Big City and Big Centers. After several years, I finally found a job at the University of New Brunswick. I was lucky, and I didn’t even know it. I hadn’t yet realized the benefits of small places.

In March 2019, I was listening to CBC Radio host Tom Powers interview the Irish-Canadian playwright, literary historian, novelist, and screenwriter Emma Donaghue, who lives and works in the mid-sized Canadian city of London, Ontario.

“I understand one of the things you love about being here is how productive you get to be. Is that right?” Tom asked.

“If I were in some big glitzy international megacity of the 21st century, there’d be a lot to distract me,” Emma replied. “But, as it is, I’ve had twenty-one years here, and I’ve written quite a lot because there’s not so much getting in the way.”

“That’s a compliment, right?”

“I think so. I mean, London, do you want to be in a city where writers party, or where writers write award-winning screenplays?”

Do you want to be in a city where Anthropologists party, or a town where Anthropologists can get things done?

Fredericton is no 21st-century international megacity. Things shut down on a Sunday afternoon. I am one of a handful of sociocultural anthropologists in the entire province. It is not a city where anthropologists party, although we did host CASCA a few years before my time, and I’ve been to my fair share of parties. There are even more talks and lectures and events than I manage to attend.

Yet, Fredericton and the University of New Brunswick provide conditions more valuable than the so-called urban innovation engendered by Big Cities and their Universities.


The non-existent commute. Dropping my son and wife off is a ten-minute drive. It’s also walkable. A hike in the woods is a few minutes away. There is no traffic, except for a few minutes at five o’clock in the afternoon. The city has places to walk, bike, ski, swim, and do many kinds of things.

The money. It may be gauche to say it, but rent is cheap, daycare is in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. If the time comes, house prices are affordable—some of the cheapest in the country.

A community. I see friends, and we can do things, planning hours not weeks in advance. Having time to meet friend and find a community and recharge, can paradoxically be much harder in a larger city.

The anonymity and lack of competition. I am a small fish in a small pond, yet there are no big fish to gobble me up. I can put my head down and get to work. The university, like any other, keeps me busy. Classes and service and committees and students and meetings and writing and research and grants and email. I run seminars and I teach too widely. But I know my students well, and they number in the dozens and not hundreds. I feel I can slow down a bit, as much as one can at the beginning of the tenure track.

The extra time is time to write, to think, to teach, to invent, to pursue new ideas, to meet, and to organize workshops and events. I’ve had time to write my dissertation into a book, publish some shorter articles, start another book, and successfully apply for a number of grants. My priority is to balance teaching and writing, and here I’ve had time for that and to think and perhaps reach a new public.

One new public, it seems to me, is defined by the places we live. I’m an ethnographer of mining in Colombia, and now of mining in rural New Brunswick.

I write in the morning for a bit, I go to class, I write in the afternoon for a bit. Or, I go to a coffee shop. Or, I walk across the river.

Sure, the grass is greener. I would like more doctoral and masters students, to teach less widely, more colleagues to talk ethnography with, and more scholars and people who care about Colombia and Latin America.

But would all that intellectual partying let me have so much time to think and write?

Cite as: Tubb. Daniel, 2019, “In Praise of Small Places.” Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 13.1.…