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The Catholic cartographer who wants to help the church fight climate change

The Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landowners. Using public data and GIS, Molly Burhans is trying to make it a better steward.

portrait of Molly Burhans
Isabel Magowan

When Molly Burhans first started trying to map the Catholic Church’s global property holdings so the land could be put to work fighting climate change, the idea seemed so obvious to her that she was sure someone else must be doing it already.

Burhans, a cartographer, was then an ecological-design grad student who had recently been introduced to geographic information system (GIS) mapping. But she was also a devout Catholic who liked spending time with nuns. It was on a visit to a monastery with a vast, underutilized lawn that she started thinking about how much land the church owns, and what an impact that land could make on the climate if managed responsibly.

“The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental provider of health care, largest nongovernmental provider of education, and second-largest network of humanitarian aid—only surpassed if you include all the member organizations of the UN put together—in the world,” she says, fingering a necklace that portrays her confirmation saint, the medieval polymath Hildegard of Bingen. “I was like, ‘They must have the largest conservation network in the world. I’m gonna go find out who is running that.’” 

What she found instead, when she began her work in 2014, was that not only did the church have no such network, but most of the parishes she contacted didn’t even have records of what land they owned—a function of the institution’s age and decentralization. The problem went all the way to the top: when Burhans managed to score an audience at the Vatican to seek access to records that would help her flesh out the maps she’d begun building using public data, with help from Yale student volunteers, she found that none of the Vatican’s own maps had been updated since 1901.

That’s the gap Burhans, who is now 33, has been trying to fill with her organization GoodLands, she tells me from an empty auditorium in the architecture building at Columbia University, where we met and where she now teaches. She uses the GIS program ArcMap and machine learning to map the church’s holdings, categorize them by type, and suggest responsible land management practices. Though no one knows exactly how much land the global church owns, some estimates have put it at 177 million acres worldwide. GIS is so powerful in part because of how it brings together different kinds of data: instead of having separate maps for an area’s property values, watersheds, ownership boundaries, soil types, Indigenous lands, tree cover, and endangered-species habitats, ArcMap allows GoodLands to bring all that information and more into a kind of super-map. 

“The interconnection between human activity and the planet is one area where mapping and analytics are helping to solve the challenges posed by climate change,” says Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Esri, a prominent GIS company. Burhans’s work is remarkable, he says, for how it “applies these technologies to more sustainable land management.”

To use mapping information in service of conservation, GoodLands starts by identifying what land a particular diocese might own, assigns the site to a category (hospital, university, or retreat center; urban and flat or rural and mountainous), and then uses machine learning to suggest responsible land management options, giving the priests or abbesses or other decision-makers a starting point as they try to discern what might be right for their community.

In practice, the decisions GoodLands assists with might be as straightforward as deciding where to plant trees: if a diocese wants to help reforest its region with limited funds, GoodLands can use GIS maps to help leaders understand their holdings and make suggestions about where to focus for maximal environmental benefit. “If you plant 500 trees in a suburban parish that already has a lot of forest canopy, you’re going to have magnitudes less impact than if you plant 15 trees on an urban parish that has no urban forest canopy around it,” Burhans says. 

Since GoodLands was founded in 2015, Burhans’s efforts have earned her the attention of the pope and the World Economic Forum, and a host of laurels that include the UN’s Young Champion of the Earth award, an Ashoka Fellowship, and the Sierra Club’s EarthCare award.

“Looking at the world not as countries, but as institutions—she was the only one who had done that,” says Carl Steinitz, a Harvard professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning. “It’s a big idea for a big institution from a very young, intellectually aggressive investigator, with an enormous potential payoff globally, both to the Vatican and to society at large.”

“We need to have policy coming out of [the Vatican]. I shouldn’t be the one-woman National Geospatial Intelligence Agency of the Catholic Church.”

Molly Burhans

“My vision initially was ‘I’m going to help dioceses map their land and find conservation [opportunities],’” says Burhans, “‘And we’re going to start building a park system like the National Parks, but the Catholic Parks.’”

Burhans was born to a computer science professor and a molecular oncology researcher, and the languages of science and data analysis formed the backdrop of her childhood. A visual thinker from an early age, she played in Photoshop and Dreamweaver; by 14, she was designing science graphics that were published alongside her father’s academic papers.

It was spending time with her dad’s research on aging in naked mole rats, and contemplating the idea that science might someday slow or even reverse the aging process, that drew her to religion: “I believe we’re put here in love, and I believe in some intentional being behind it.” That being, she believed, was God.

After spending two years studying ancient Greek so she could translate the Nicene Creed, one of the oldest articulations of Christian faith, Burhans began to embrace Catholicism, which she’d been introduced to as a child before her family stopped attending mass around the time she turned seven.

Her life mission soon became figuring out how to “love in a society where you cannot do pretty much anything without harming people.” That question led her to travel through Guatemala painting murals for six months and volunteering in soup kitchens before returning to her hometown of Buffalo, New York, to graduate from Canisius College, where she studied philosophy and dance. 

Back in Buffalo, she hung out with punks, squatters, and freegans who were living in (and in some cases refurbishing) the city’s many empty lots and abandoned buildings and eating discarded food out of dumpsters. It was there that she began to see what she calls “the power of property.” Around this time, Burhans cofounded her first venture, a worker-owned indoor aquaponic vertical farm called Gro-Op, started in an old industrial space to provide fresh fish and produce to people living in a food desert. Though Burhans is no longer involved, Gro-Op is still growing tilapia and greens for Buffalo residents. 

She carried these experiences into a master’s program in ecological design at the Conway School in Massachusetts. It was there that she was first introduced to GIS, which she remembers as “one of the best days” of her life. “It was like somebody had taken the way my mind works and put it into software,” she says. She graduated in 2015 and started GoodLands with $7,000 of student loan money, taking on early projects pro bono as she tried to help Catholic leadership understand the potential of what she was offering. 

And GoodLands had a lot to offer. By combining maps of Catholic land and public school districts, for example, it has helped Catholic organizations figure out where a new school could best meet local educational needs. Its services have helped religious orders understand their options for conservation on their property and could in the future help relief organizations figure out where best to disburse disaster aid, by combining data about where the church has a presence and where the greatest need is. 

Molly Burhans leans on a countertop upon which is spread a large map

The work Burhans is undertaking is perhaps even more challenging politically than it is technically, says Steinitz. “You have to do an awful lot of digging. You have to deal with places that don’t have maps; you have places that don’t have property definitions. I mean, try doing this in Central Africa,” he says. Plus, he adds, she’s “totally the outsider” as a young woman in the Catholic Church, where older men sit at the top of the hierarchy.

Still, she has gained recognition at those levels. Not long after Burhans began trying to map the church, Pope Francis released his landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, which has been dubbed “the most important document about climate change in the past decade” by the climate activist and writer Bill McKibben. Francis has earned the moniker “the climate pope” in the years since for his leadership on the subject both inside the church and on the global stage, having spoken urgently about the need for climate action to world leaders at the UN and beyond.

So it was with a strong sense of shared values around “care for our common home” that Burhans sought official Vatican approval for her work. And in 2018, after she’d made multiple visits to Rome, the pope approved her request to start a cartography institute. The budget offered was too small to be feasible, but had Burhans accepted it, she would’ve been the first woman to head up an institute of any kind at the Vatican.

GoodLands has always operated on a limited budget, and its history is full of moments of economic precarity followed by what a good Catholic might call providence. In the early days, when Burhans’s student software license was about to run out, Dangermond heard about her and donated about $3 million worth of his company’s software (followed by an invitation for her to come manage a team as a visiting researcher at Esri when she was just 26). When she was so broke on a trip to Rome that she worried she was going to have to sleep on the street before a Vatican meeting where she’d be speaking among prime ministers and dignitaries, a Vatican staff person invited her to stay at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where Pope Francis lives.

The level of international recognition she’s garnered means she almost certainly could’ve gotten a “real job” at a big tech company at any point along the way. But Burhans’s aspirations have been shaped by the stories of nuns and religious figures like Dorothy Day—people who embraced “voluntary poverty.”

For all her willingness to live on beans and rice, though, she could use another act of providence: on the day she was going to the UN to receive its most prestigious environmental award, she had to lay off her staff of 10 when the organization’s funding unexpectedly fell through. Since then, GoodLands has gone back to being just “the Molly show,” with no other employees to help shoulder the workload—which, combined with a spate of deaths in Burhans’s family and her own battles with long covid and injuries from a Vespa accident, has slowed her down considerably over the last couple of years.  

Even so, demand for GoodLands’s services hasn’t subsided: the organization has “over $14 million worth of projects in our pipeline” at the moment, she says. But without some capital up front to rehire a team to help her, there’s no way to start making progress on all those projects, and Burhans is not willing to take on any investors who might compromise her mission by looking for a quick return. 

Burhans is hopeful that she’ll get her team up and running again. Once she gets over that hurdle, she plans to turn GoodLands from a nonprofit into a for-profit consultancy that can work with both Catholic and secular organizations looking to use their land for good. She’s also recently rekindled the once-dead dream of setting up a cartography institute for the Vatican. Burhans believes in the church’s immense potential to spur climate action, especially under the direction of this climate-conscious pope. “We need to have policy coming out of there,” she says. “I shouldn’t be the one-woman National Geospatial Intelligence Agency of the Catholic Church.”

Whatever her path looks like from here, Burhans wants to make the Vatican’s commitment to climate action a reality that’s embedded in every plot of land the church owns.  

“The vision that is so much bigger than me is this,” she says. “Let’s see Catholic conservation reach the same scale as Catholic health care in the next century, as the largest global network the world has ever seen.” 

Whitney Bauck is a climate and environment reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. 

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