Impulsive Thinking and what E-scooters and Wolves Teach us to Cope with it
19 May 2023
It is both exciting and instructive to see how a modern society that sees itself as open and agile reacts when material changes make it necessary to adjust the existing social consensus. Yet the path to a new state of equilibrium does not always follow logical rules. Deep-rooted habits of thought and emotional processes can hinder consensus formation especially with the emergence of different camps of opinion that inevitably confront each other with increasing animosity. Both the press and social media tend to exacerbate the polarity by pouring what amounts to jet fuel on the fire of public opinion.
To explore this phenomenon, I have chosen two controversial topics in Germany, the spread of rentable electric scooters in big cities and the return of wolves. In the first case, emotional responses have not won out and solutions are emerging. The second case is more challenging.
Since 2019, there has been a plentiful supply of e-scooters that you can rent via your mobile phone. Young people in particular like to take advantage of the offer and praise the possibility of being able to move around urban areas independently of public transport timetables and traffic jams, without causing emissions.
On the other hand, another segment of the population have taken issue with the e-scooters, as they encroach on the pavement at high speed. Furthermore, e-scooters are in many cases not parked properly, but simply left on the pavement, colonising much pedestrian space and being especially dangerous for elderly and visually impaired pedestrians who can easily trip over the unexpected obstacle. Another problem relates to the way that bikes are both visual and physical pollutants, and in quite a few cases, users of e-scooters have thrown them into bodies of water after use.
On 2 April 2023, the city of Paris held a legally non-binding referendum on whether to renew the licences it has granted to providers of rentable e-scooters. Following a broad majority against e-scooters, the city council agreed to let the licences expire on 31 August. This example has impressed e-scooter opponents in Germany.
However the debate is not over yet. For a rational assessment, we still need to know
The ecological cost of e-scooters. While they certainly emit less direct emissions, a true reckoning of their environmental cost would need to take into account the impact of their manufacturing including components, battery charging, maintenance, the average lifetime of the means of transport (less than 2 years) and how such devices are disposed of at end of life.
The direct damages (death, injuries, treatment costs) and consequential damages (loss of working hours, rehabilitation costs) caused by accidents. There are statistical evaluations for this. The age groups of road accident victims (one third is under 25) and the most common causes of accidents (often alcohol) must also be taken into account.
Factual evaluation of e-scooters and decision-making, no yelling
Decisions on issuing licences like in Paris are made by city councils, not by groups of citizens who are hostile to each other. The public administration is held to assess, according to objective criteria, under which conditions a business such as the rental of e-scooters can be operated. For example, a license can be granted so that the city can charge rental companies a flat fee for each incorrectly parked device, fees that these companies can pass on to their customers. Regulation can also involve police imposing spot fines for driving on the pavement or driving while inebriated. Municipalities can thus set effective impulses for civilised behaviour. If such measures are not sufficient, then short of outright banning, there is the possibility of making licences so expensive that the financial incentive for e-scooter rental companies is removed.
The bottom line is that at the technical level, administrations have a good chance of disempowering groups of citizens who are bent on disputes among themselves. They can analyse issues in a balanced way and establish a common denominator. And they can change their decisions later when relevant or new aspects to an issue are discovered. In this case, resistance to administrative decisions will not be massive because the group of enthusiastic e-scooter riders is manageable and has not mobilised a strong lobby politically.
Wolves were a part of Europe’s natural landscapes until the 19th century when industrialisation, agricultural innovations and increases in population led to the consensus that wolves were a disturbance. In 1879, a forester in the Hunsrück region killed the last wolf living in Germany.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a growing migration of wolves from the east of the continent, beginning with loners and eventually packs. As of 28 November 2022, 161 packs, 43 pairs and 21 individuals were officially reported in the country. This does not include the number of pups. There will also be a number of unreported cases. The population is growing rapidly.
Debates on the topic of "wolves" in personal circles and in public heat up quickly. They can be amazingly upsetting. Usually they follow this pattern
The unfortunate thing is that after such debate heats up, it can be difficult to simmer things back down again. Confirmation bias, the tendency to only seek out information that backs up pre-existing beliefs, rules supreme and quarrels become ever more bitter. Rising adrenaline levels on all sides are the worst preconditions for finding reasonable solutions with the media, fuelled by controversy, encouraging the argument.
Who are the stakeholders
(a) The “pro-camp”
There are dedicated nature conservationists who are firmly committed to the restoration of what they see as the natural state of things. Their basic premise is that humans must learn to live together with wolves in a harmonious way. They are professionally organised in the “Nature Conservation Union”.
There are many people who react enthusiastically and romantically to the return of wolves to Western Europe. This emotional and sentimental association of modern Europeans with wolves may be a re-emerging remnant from vanished Indo-European shamanistic imaginaries. They celebrate 13 August as the “International Wolf Day”. Perhaps Sergei Prokofiev contributed a little to creating the image of the placid relationship between humans and wolves.
(b) The “anti-camp”
Shepherds are the most affected stakeholders, because wolves have a preference for sheep. As a rule, wolves do not kill only one animal to consume the meat, thus Shepherds typically find a large number of dead or dying animals in the morning after the wolves have lived out a bloodlust. Low-income shepherds are urged to protect their flocks with tall electric fences and trained livestock guardian dogs or Kangal dogs. These are expensive. Compensation paid by the state for animals killed does not cover the damage because the surviving animals are persistently traumatised. The recommended protective measures are heavy financial burdens for them and may be unaffordable. Shepherds may also become mentally affected by attacks on their sheep and end up giving up their flocks.
Cyclists: Recently, three wolves chased a young woman who was on her way to work on her e-bike. She was able to escape danger with the help of the turbo gear.
Even though there has not yet been an attack, it’s hard to reason with parents whose children have to be calmed down when their children encounter a wolf on the way to school. Parents do not accept arguments like "low probability" when a wolf appears in front of a primary school. There is a correlation between wolf attacks and rabies.
The search for wolf attacks on e-scooter drivers was unsuccessful, even though the first wolves have been seen in suburbs. However, there are e-scooters that have included the term "wolf" in their brand name. May they all travel safely!
(c) The public sector: European Union, federation, federal states, judiciary
The European "Habitats Directive" is the basis for the legislation of the member states. The Federal State in its capacity as legislator has adopted the concept of wolves as a healthy part of nature and placed the wolf under conservation at the national level. This means that wolves may only be shot in extremely exceptional cases. The state ensures enforcement through hunting authorities and forestry authorities. Unauthorised shooting results in criminal prosecution and the rules are strictly applied.
Towards a more comprehensive set of facts
In the middle of the 19th century, the privilege of the aristocracy to hunt in the forests ended. At the same time, state-controlled management of the forests without wolves began. It had and still has the goal of preserving the total area of the forests and maintaining them while satisfying the needs of the timber and agricultural industries. The exception are smaller national parks that correspond to the landscapes before nature was cultivated.
The state administration and hunters, on instruction of the authorities, have successfully developed a managed minimally invasive ecosystem which is sometimes designated as a "cultural landscape". Hunters are only allowed to operate during set seasons, and they may only shoot with prior permission of the local hunting authority. They are a reliable pillar of landscape management.
The incidents mentioned above do not meet the requirements of comprehensive statistics. We have to qualify them as not more than "anecdotal evidence". However, when it comes to issues of safety, especially for humans, such incidents cannot be dismissed as irrelevant.
Nonetheless it is fair to conclude that a freely reproducing wolf population is:
an interference with the hitherto well-performing management of “cultural landscapes”.
a risk factor for humans and their animals.
The serious question we need to address is whether wolves make a valuable contribution to maintaining the ecological balance in the “cultural landscapes” where deer and other ungulates would otherwise destroy forests through overgrazing. Included in this question is the hypothesis that hunting authorities, which have been responsible for managing ecosystems for more than 150 years and issue shooting permits to hunters and foresters according to their observations and calculations based on experience, contribute less to the environment and society than wolves.
Hypotheses can be confirmed or refuted by facts. If they cannot be supported by facts, then we should look towards the potential outcomes we can ascertain and whether the risk is worth it. The political options available, from taking no action to reducing the number of wolves or to eliminating the population thus should be weighed up as to what we believe would cause the least damage.
There are signs that some German federal states have begun to study facts and conduct deeper empirical research. They may decide to facilitate the shooting of wolves identified as dangerous by means of ordinances. This would mean a soft intervention. The federal state of Bavaria has recently decided to go this route.
A sudden and most unfortunate impulse to action would be felt by all European states if there were a fatal wolf attack on a human. Think of the poor 26-year-old jogger who was horribly killed by a bear in Trentino-Alto Adige a few weeks ago. The bears had been introduced to the area about 20 years ago with the aim of strengthening biodiversity.
So how does this all relate to e-scooters? We could say that e-scooters and wolves are both invasive species. The impulse to simply welcome them is as understandable as it is hasty. The two issues allow us to reflect on how much damage society must suffer before a serious decision-making process is set in motion. However, reason has a hard time making its way through powerful collective feelings.
The public sector is bound to the common good. Feelings are to be taken into account, but these must not override the necessity to protect the citizens’ health and lives. E-scooters pose a manageable threat. But the public sector will need to carefully review its current pro-wolf legislation in light of aggregated and ascertained data.
Fully human generated
The stumbling block
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.