Molly Burhans wants the Catholic Church to put its assets—which include farms, forests, oil wells, and millions of acres of land—to better use. But, first, she has to map them.
In the summer of 2016, Molly Burhans, a twenty-six-year-old cartographer and environmentalist from Connecticut, spoke at a Catholic conference in Nairobi, and she took advantage of her modest travel stipend to book her return trip through Rome. When she arrived, she got a room in the cheapest youth hostel she could find, and began sending e-mails to Vatican officials, asking if they’d be willing to meet with her. She wanted to discuss a project she’d been working on for months: documenting the global landholdings of the Catholic Church. To her surprise, she received an appointment in the office of the Secretariat of State.
On the day of the meeting, she couldn’t find the entrance that she’d been told to use. She hadn’t bought a sim card for her phone, so she couldn’t call for help, and, in a panic, she ran almost all the way around Vatican City. The day was hot, and she was sweating. At last, she spotted a monk, and she asked him for directions. He gave her a funny look: the entrance was a few steps away. A pair of Swiss Guards, in their blue, red, and yellow striped uniforms, led her to an elevator. She took it to the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace, and walked down a long marble hallway. On the wall to her right were windows draped with gauzy curtains; to her left were enormous fresco maps, commissioned in the early sixteenth century, depicting the world as it was known then.
Burhans concluded that the Church had the means to address climate issues directly, through better land management, and that it was also capable of protecting populations that were especially vulnerable to the consequences of global warming. Some researchers have estimated that drought, rising sea levels, and other climate-related disasters will drive two hundred million people from their homes by 2050; many of those people live in places—including some parts of Central Africa, the Amazon Basin, and Asia—where the Church has more leverage than any government. “There is no way that we will address the climate crisis or biodiversity loss in any sort of timely manner if the Catholic Church does not engage, especially with its own lands and property,” Burhans said. “At the end of the day, I’m more subordinate to my ecclesiastical authority than I am to my government authority. You can see that kind of sentiment even in non-Catholics, like Martin Luther King, Jr.—sometimes you have to default to a greater good.” What if desecration of the environment were a mortal sin? Could faith accomplish what science and politics have not?
In the spring of 2015, Pope Francis presented “Laudato Si’,” a forty-thousand-word encyclical on reckless consumerism, ecological degradation, and global warming. In the Book of Genesis, God gives man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”; in “Laudato Si’,” Francis interprets “dominion” as something like moral responsibility, and writes that the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” He calls for the replacement of fossil fuels “without delay,” and demands that wealthy countries be held accountable for their “ecological debt,” which they have accumulated by exploiting poorer countries. Shortly after “Laudato Si’ ” was published, Herman Daly, an environmental economist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, wrote that Francis “will be known by the enemies this encyclical makes for him,” among them “the Heartland Institute, Jeb Bush, Senator James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum.” (Daly could have included the libertarian commentator Greg Gutfeld, who, while discussing “Laudato Si’ ” on Fox News, characterized Francis as “the most dangerous person on the planet.”)
Burhans was in graduate school, studying landscape design, at the time. She described “Laudato Si’ ” to me as “one of the most important documents of the century,” but she also said that, not long after Francis presented it, she discovered that the Church had no real mechanism for achieving its goals. “The Catholic Church is the world’s largest non-government provider of health care, humanitarian aid, and education,” she said, “and I assumed that it must have a significant environmental network, too.” She identified a number of ecology-focussed Catholic groups, mostly in wealthier parishes, but no central organization that she could join—no Catholic Sierra Club or Nature Conservancy, no environmental equivalent of Catholic Relief Services.
In September of 2015—four months after the publication of “Laudato Si’,” and a few weeks after she received her master’s degree—she founded GoodLands, an organization whose mission, according to its Web site, is “mobilizing the Catholic Church to use her land for good.” Burhans’s immediate goal was to use technology that she had become proficient at in graduate school—the powerful cartographic and data-management tools known as geographic information systems (G.I.S.)—to create a land-classification plan that could be used in evaluating and then managing the Church’s global property holdings. “You should put your environmental programs where they mean the most, and if you don’t understand the geographic context you can’t do that,” she said.