How you view Eric Knight’s book by the end will depend very heavily on what you want out of it. At one level it works extremely well: a very readable and lively introduction to many of the issues which dominate the agendas of politicians and diplomats – fighting terrorism, regulating the financial markets, handling immigration, dealing with climate change and more.
Eric Knight, however, sets out to do more than present a primer on major current issues, as the subtitle suggests: “How to solve the world’s trickiest problems”. His argument is that by reframing issues, using original perspectives, we can find hidden solutions to pressing problems. What it amounts to is little more than, ‘look at the underlying causes’, for on each of the topics where Knight goes for a reframing the result is to present policy solutions that are already widely talked about, and indeed already often followed. Saying that you tackle terrorist insurgencies by winning the hearts and minds of the wider population rather than simply by killing as many enemies as possible is hardly new. Nor either are ‘reframings’ such as seeing immigration concerns as being primarily fuelled by economic problems and job market difficulties.
Knight does a good job at explaining why looking for the underlying causes is something so many people fail at, pointing out that as the people making these mistakes are often smart people there is more to the errors than simple stupidity. Along the way we get a smattering of the sort of psychological discussion about how our brains work and the mistakes they tend to make which now commonly features in many books. Knight also talks about how the media and politicians often being dominated by the short-term events which catch the headlines rather than the long-term trends that are really shaping events. Alas, he only touches on this very briefly, although it is a factor central to many of the issues he covers.
We do get an impressively wide range of evidence and accounts, including a nicely done tale of the nineteenth century’s equivalent of ‘peak oil’, namely ‘the coal question’ as people fretted about Britain running out of coal. (Eric Knight’s conclusion is that focusing on problems with one raw material is nearly always a mistake as its increasing scarcity and rising prices lead either to alternative supplies being found or to substitutes becoming popular.)
This all makes the book much less of a Malcolm Gladwell-style ‘here is a rather clever way of looking at things’ and much more of a ‘here is an excellent introduction to many issues’. It is no worse for that, as long as you are happy for it to be that type of book.