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

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

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.”