How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change. 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.
By David Owen in the New Yorker, February 1, 2021
The role of the cartographer, according to Molly Burhans, is not just data analytics. “It’s also storytelling,” she said. Photograph by Isabel Magowan for The New Yorker
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 has been a deeply committed Catholic since she was twenty-one. For a year or two, when she was in college, she considered becoming a nun. Later, though, as she grew increasingly concerned about climate change, her ambitions broadened, and she began to think of ways in which the Catholic Church could be mobilized as a global environmental force. “There are 1.2 billion Catholics,” she told me. “If the Church were a country, it would be the third most populous, after China and India.” The Church, furthermore, is probably the world’s largest non-state landowner. The assets of the Holy See, combined with those of parishes, dioceses, and religious orders, include not just cathedrals, convents, and Michelangelo’s Pietà but also farms, forests, and, by some estimates, nearly two hundred million acres of land.
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.
The first step was to document the Church’s actual possessions. She began by making telephone calls to individual parishes in Connecticut, where she lived. “And what I found out was that none of them knew what they owned,” she told me. “Some of them didn’t even have paper records.” She enlisted volunteers, including several graduate students at the Yale School of the Environment, and, by harvesting data from public land records and other sources, they began to assemble a map of the modern Catholic realm. By June of 2016, the most detailed reference they’d found was a version of “Atlas Hierarchicus,” published at the behest of the Vatican. The maps in it had last been updated in 1901. “The diocesan boundaries in the atlas were hand-drawn, without a standardized geographic projection,” Burhans told me, and the information was so outdated that most of it was unusable. When she travelled to Rome that summer, her main goal was to find someone in the Vatican who could give her access to the Holy See’s records and digital databases, enabling her to fill in the many gaps.
In the Office of the Secretariat of State that day, Burhans met with two priests. She showed them the prototype map that she had been working on, and explained what she was looking for. “I asked them where their maps were kept,” she said. The priests pointed to the frescoes on the walls. “Then I asked if I could speak to someone in their cartography department.” The priests said they didn’t have one.
Centuries ago, monks were among the world’s most assiduous geographers—hence the frescoes. But, at some point after the publication of “Atlas Hierarchicus,” the Church began to lose track of its own possessions. “Until a few years ago, the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics didn’t even have Wi-Fi,” Burhans said. “They were keeping records in a text file, in Microsoft Word.” In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a British bishop who had been convicted by a German court of promoting Holocaust denial. When the announcement provoked outrage, Benedict explained that he hadn’t known about Williamson’s past remarks. “People said, ‘Why didn’t you just Google the guy’s name?’ ” Burhans told me. “And they were, like, ‘We don’t have Google.’ ”VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKERHow One Polygamous Family Changed the Law
At the end of her meeting with the priests, Burhans asked whether they would mind if she continued to gather information on her own, since they didn’t have what she was looking for. “They spoke in Italian for five or ten minutes,” she recalled. “I was thinking, Can you be excommunicated for asking a question?” As an obedient Catholic, she would have felt compelled to abandon her entire project if they had said no. “But they didn’t say no,” she told me. “In the end, they said, ‘Yes, that would be useful for everything.’ ” She thanked them, and told them that she would be back.
Burhans was born in New York City in 1989. Her mother, Debra, is a professor of computer science at Canisius College, in Buffalo. Her father, William, who died in 2019, of prostate cancer, was a researcher in molecular oncology. As a young girl, Burhans was passionate about drawing and about her family’s Macintosh computer. At six, she taught herself to use Canvas, an early program for graphics and desktop publishing, and then Dreamweaver and Flash. When she was in high school, her father and his colleagues paid her to create graphs and illustrations in Photoshop for their scientific papers—a nerd’s equivalent of babysitting money. Her main interest, however, was always ballet. She began taking lessons when she was five, and by the time she was in high school she was practicing several hours a day, six days a week.
She enrolled at Mercyhurst University, in Pennsylvania, in 2007, intending to major in dance, but she withdrew in the fall of her sophomore year, among other reasons because she had suffered a debilitating foot injury, and because she had walked in on a student who was trying to kill herself. She returned to her parents’ house, in Buffalo, and, after a period of dejection, became involved in the city’s arts community. She took advantage of a policy at Canisius that allowed the children of faculty members to study tuition-free. She eventually majored in philosophy, but she also studied science, mathematics, and art. She told me that in high school she’d been so focussed on ballet that she was never much of a student; now she devoted herself to academics with the same intensity that she’d once devoted to dance. She spent six months travelling, by herself, in Guatemala, where she volunteered with several N.G.O.s. “What I learned there is that land is a critical vehicle not only for food security and ecosystem support but also for helping people in rural poverty get out of poverty,” she said. She was surprised by some of the friends she made. “They were Christians, but not like the Christians you see on TV—none of the prosperity gospel crap,” she said. “In fact, exactly the opposite. I began to think, Maybe I’m a Christian.”
Burhans’s family was nominally Catholic. She had attended a parochial school through third grade, and Mercyhurst and Canisius are both Catholic institutions. But when she went to church as a child, she said, “I’m pretty sure I was only in it for the doughnuts.” When she was twelve, the Boston Globe published its “Spotlight” articles about child abuse by priests. She said her feelings about the Church, which had been “not spiritually mature,” turned angry and hostile. “Here was this institution that had perpetuated colonialism, and now it was hiding a bunch of pedophiles.”
At Canisius, though, she experienced a spiritual awakening. She was working on a physics problem one day, thinking about limits and infinitesimal values, and suddenly she felt overwhelmed. “The Jesuits talk about seeing God in all things, and you can see God in all things through the infinite,” she said. She began meeting regularly with a Jesuit spiritual director, who introduced her to the Examen of St. Ignatius, a demanding daily prayer exercise, which she described to me as “mindfulness on steroids.”
As Burhans became interested in Catholicism, her social life changed. “I no longer had people to listen to John Cage or Frank Zappa with,” she told me. Her new friends were “middle-class suburban campus-ministry members who liked belting Disney songs.” She had no real regrets, though, because she had “fallen in love with God.” She took classes in Greek, so that she could read the New Testament in its original language, and she read works by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who, during the Great Depression, founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a network of pacifist, communitarian groups that were dedicated to living in poverty and aiding the poor. She got two tattoos: one, on her forearm, of a bicycle with three wheels arranged in a triangle (symbolizing her interest in both the Holy Trinity and low-carbon transportation), and one, on her right shoulder, of the third line of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—“for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
During her time at Canisius, Burhans spent a week on a service retreat at a monastery in northwestern Pennsylvania, and she was struck that the resident Sisters were doing almost nothing with their property other than mowing its immense lawn. “There were many acres of forest, but, at that time, there was no forest plan, no erosion plan, no invasive-species plan,” she said. “And I thought, Wow, this could be done better. They could be doing sustainable forest management and earning revenue, or they could implement a permaculture farming system and actually feed people.”
In 2013, the summer before she graduated, she saw an advertisement on Facebook for the Conway School, a ten-month master’s degree program in ecologically minded landscape design, in Conway, Massachusetts. The school was founded, in 1972, by Walter Cudnohufsky, a Harvard-trained landscape architect, who believed that conventional graduate programs in his field were too theoretical and insufficiently collaborative. She decided that the Conway program might enable her to combine her interests in design, conservation, and morally responsible land use, and prepare her for her ideal occupation, which she thought might be “nun farmer” or “nun park ranger.”
There were seventeen students in Burhans’s program at Conway. The youngest had just earned an undergraduate degree in architecture; the oldest had worked for nearly a decade as a product designer at Tupperware and Rubbermaid and wanted to make a career change. During the second half of the program, each member of the class was given a student license for ArcMap, a G.I.S. program created by a company called Esri. The purpose of G.I.S. is to make complex information easier to understand and analyze, by organizing it geographically and in multiple layers. In 1854, during a cholera epidemic in London, the English physician John Snow created a simple forerunner of G.I.S. by marking the locations of individual cases on a street map, thereby tracing the source of one neighborhood’s outbreak to a particular public well, around which the dots clustered. Snow’s map was easy to understand, and it identified not just the problem but also the solution.
Modern G.I.S. software can provide the same kind of clarity, but for vastly larger quantities of data, much of it not obviously geographical. Immense data sets can be analyzed individually, or they can be merged to reveal ways in which they interact. G.I.S. has been behind the news for much of the past year, because the digital systems that health officials and medical personnel around the world are using to track the novel coronavirus are almost all built on G.I.S. platforms. The software makes it possible to plot covid-19 cases in relation to factors such as income levels, school-district boundaries, and the locations of health-care facilities. “You can see where the medical supplies are and who has comorbidities and who has health insurance, and you can see that in areas where people don’t own cars you need testing sites within walking distance,” Burhans told me. “If you put all that information in tables or graphs, it would be overwhelming. But the second you get it into a spatial relationship you can see what you have to do.”
Burhans said that the day she opened ArcMap was one of the best days of her life. “Most of my classmates were swearing at their computers, because the program is really hard,” she said. “But I just knew how it worked. It was like someone had put my brain in a piece of software.” At Canisius, she had supplemented the course materials in a science class by diagramming biological systems, in stackable layers, on an outline of the human body—cell types, germ layers, the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system. G.I.S., she said, combined categories of information in a similar way, but with digital geospatial data rather than with body parts.
Conway students worked exclusively with real clients. Burhans was part of a team assigned to an environmental group in Portland, Maine, which wanted to plant pollinator-friendly vegetation on undeveloped land in the city. She told me, “My reaction was that a project like that, however well intentioned, might simply be creating ecological sinks—where you plant just enough to lure pollinator species into the city but not enough to support their full life cycle. So I found all these meta-analyses of habitat conditions—for insects and for some birds. Like, how far can they go to the next forage patch—is it four feet, four metres, forty metres?” She incorporated data about topography, solar radiation, drainage, and shade cast by buildings, as well as the names and addresses of the owners of every undeveloped parcel in Portland. “I created a rudimentary but useful program,” she continued. “And what I saw, all of a sudden, was that there were these potentially robust habitat corridors that went all the way through the city, and that if you followed them you actually could support pollinators without creating sinks.” For the final version she drew illustrations.
Paul Hellmund, Conway’s director at the time, described Burhans’s pollinator work to me as “mind-blowing.” Her ArcMap instructor was Dana Tomlin, a visiting lecturer, who teaches G.I.S. at both Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, and who was the originator of a field in cartography known as map algebra. He told me, “With Molly, it was like the child who finds the musical instrument that’s right for them, and thereby becomes a master at it.” Burhans said that, as she worked on the project, she felt several of her interests come together, like layers in G.I.S.: computer science, conservation, art—even dance, since managing data sets in ArcMap felt like choreography.
It was while she was at Conway that Burhans decided her original career goal had been too narrow. Instead of reforming the land-use practices of a single convent or monastery, she thought, why not use G.I.S. to analyze all Catholic property holdings, and then help the Church put them to better use? She met the historian Jill Ker Conway, who owned a house nearby (but who, despite her name, had no connection to the school). Conway was the president of Smith College between 1975 and 1985, and in 2013 she received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama. She invited Burhans to tea one afternoon, and “pulled the entire idea for GoodLands out of me,” Burhans said.
Conway, who died in 2018, introduced Burhans to a mentee of hers, Rosanne Haggerty, who had worked with Brooklyn Catholic Charities in the nineteen-eighties and won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001 for creating housing for the homeless in New York City. When Burhans graduated, in 2015, she had very little money, and Haggerty invited her to live, rent-free, in a house that she and her husband owned, in Hartford, Connecticut. Burhans stayed, on and off, for two years—without ever unpacking, because she worried that she was imposing. She created much of GoodLands, on her laptop, in Haggerty’s son’s former bedroom.
GoodLands’ first real office was a small room on the second floor of a two-story building in New Haven, overlooking the Quinnipiac River. I met Burhans there a little over a year ago. She was wearing a knee-length brown skirt, a blouse buttoned at the throat, and a gray cardigan sweater, all bought at thrift stores. The office contained a desk, a bank of file cabinets, and a couch, on which Burhans sometimes spent the night when she had worked late and didn’t feel like riding her motor scooter back to her apartment, on the other side of the river. A brown paper grocery bag on the floor next to the couch contained her pajamas. Hanging on the wall above the desk was a copy, printed on a large sheet of plastic, of the first complete map that GoodLands made of the Church’s jurisdictional elements. (The Church is primarily divided into episcopal conferences, provinces, dioceses, and parishes.) “Nobody had mapped this before,” she said. “And one of the things you can see is that ecclesiastical boundaries don’t always conform to modern geopolitical boundaries. The Seoul Diocese, for example, spans the border between North and South Korea.”
Early on, Burhans got a huge break when someone familiar with her work at Conway described her pollinator project to Jack and Laura Dangermond, the founders and owners of Esri, the publishers of ArcMap. Jack Dangermond first began exploring computer-mapping software in 1968, in a research lab at Harvard. He and Laura started Esri three years later, with a small loan from Jack’s mother. Today, their company employs forty-five hundred people worldwide and has annual revenues estimated at more than a billion dollars.
The Dangermonds invited Burhans to Esri’s headquarters, in Redlands, California, to explain the work she’d been doing with their program. At the end of that meeting, they gave her the enterprise version of their most sophisticated software—a huge relief to Burhans, because her student license had expired a few days before. They also offered her the equivalent of an open-ended fellowship, including unlimited access to the company’s facilities and staff, and housing in a nearby apartment building that they owned. Burhans later worked for four months in Esri’s Prototype Lab. The company’s engineers helped her customize her software, expand her database, and create a detailed infrastructure plan.
Even so, Burhans told me, she spent the first three years after founding GoodLands “eating beans and crying.” Almost all of the work she did, including a few projects for the Vatican, was pro bono, and, although she had received small grants from Catholic-friendly organizations, she could seldom afford even part-time help. It wasn’t until 2016 that she hired her first paid intern: Sasha Trubetskoy, a statistics major at the University of Chicago, whom she had discovered on Wikipedia. Trubetskoy, for fun, had created a simple map of ecclesiastical provinces, using the open-source image-editing program gimp. He told me, “Ecclesiastical provinces seemed like the last vestiges of the administrative structure of the Roman Empire, and I was surprised that the Catholic Church hadn’t really mapped them.” Many of Trubetskoy’s boundaries were approximate, but he had collected information that Burhans had seen nowhere else. (Trubetskoy is now a freelance data scientist. His recent hobby projects have included mapping the road systems of Gaul and medieval Japan.)
Burhans unexpectedly acquired a significant missing piece in late 2016, while she was working without pay to map the property holdings and subsidiary branches of a global community of Catholic organizations. During a visit to one of its sites, she told some priests about her long-term plans—after dinner, over cognac—and one of them excused himself, returned to his room, and came back with a stack of printed materials that documented the diocesan boundaries in China, where he had served as a missionary. One of her most useful early resources was David Cheney, an I.T. specialist for the Internal Revenue Service, who had spent more than twenty years collecting, cataloguing, and digitizing all the information he could find about the worldwide Catholic Church. His database included statistics about individual dioceses as well as the names, postings, and birth dates of bishops, cardinals, and other Church personnel. Burhans incorporated it all.
Afew weeks after Burhans and I met at the GoodLands office, I visited her in her apartment, a basement studio in an old building on a residential block dominated by a Polish Catholic church. She called the apartment her hobbit hole. I entered through the kitchen, a narrow galley with scaled-down appliances on one side and coat hooks and a pair of cross-country skis on the other. There was a fireplace on the far side of the main room, and, against another wall, a single bed with a brightly painted folk-art crucifix hanging above it.
On a laptop, she showed me a high-resolution “green infrastructure” map of the United States that Esri engineers had created. The map incorporates vast quantities of data: topography, wetlands, forests, agriculture, human development—all of which can be explored, in detail, by zooming and clicking. Burhans had added her own data, about Catholic landholdings, and, by bringing those boundaries to the foreground and narrowing the focus, she was able to show me specific Church-owned parcels not far from where we were sitting which would be particularly valuable in any effort to preserve watersheds, habitats, migratory corridors, or other environmental assets. If Church leaders understood what they controlled, she said, they could collaborate with municipalities, government agencies, environmental N.G.O.s, and others, in addition to any efforts they might undertake on their own. “The role of the cartographer isn’t just data analytics,” she said. “It’s also storytelling.”
Burhans has used G.I.S. in Catholic projects unrelated to the environment, as well. GoodLands’ first paid job was a “school-suitability analysis” for the Foundation for Catholic Education. That project, Burhans said, “had nothing to do with ecology, but the mission is a good one, and they were willing to pay us.” The fee enabled her to hire contractors, who helped her use Esri software to map and analyze income levels, public-school quality, changing demographics, and other factors affecting the viability of independent Catholic schools in particular locations. “We were able to show them things like, If you close this Catholic school, you’re going to abandon a lot of kids in an area that has a totally dysfunctional public-school system, and if you start a school here you’re going to serve a lot of new families that don’t have other options.” The foundation became a repeat client, and for a while, she said, “I could eat organic beans.”
In 2017, GoodLands mapped abuse cases involving Catholic priests, using data collected by an organization called Bishop Accountability. Historically, accused abusers have been allowed by Church officials to disappear into new assignments, including teaching positions in elementary schools. “It still happens that a priest is accused and then, instead of turning him over to the authorities, his diocese ships him to a different diocese—and often the new diocese is in a mission territory,” Burhans said. Such transfers, like viral pandemics, can be fought partly through contact tracing—an obvious use for G.I.S. GoodLands tracked roughly four hundred and fifty accused priests and bishops, and showed how, with the help of the Church, they had avoided prosecution for years. On the maps and graphs that GoodLands created, you can follow an individual abuser from assignment to assignment, and you can click down through accusations, indictments, convictions, sentences, and press coverage. Burhans was also able to demonstrate that the number of cases dropped dramatically in dioceses in which formal policies to protect minors had been put in place, including requirements for notifying non-Church authorities about accusations. While working on a related project in 2019, she concluded that the Church could take a major step toward containing child abuse by clergy if it imposed such protective policies in just five critical episcopal conferences.
“The Vatican needs a room where they can have all this stuff on dashboards, so that they can actually check on it,” she said. For-profit companies, N.G.O.s, government agencies, and defense departments all over the world depend on similar capabilities, for a huge variety of purposes. U.P.S. uses Esri software to design efficient routes for its drivers; Starbucks uses it to select sites for new stores (“Why do you think that whenever you need a coffee there just happens to be a Starbucks there?” Burhans asked me); the World Health Organization used Esri software in creating the plan that halted the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2016, and W.H.O. representatives told the Dangermonds afterward that G.I.S. had been crucial to their success. “What Molly is trying to do is to digitally transform the Church, through spatial thinking,” Jack Dangermond told me. “The issues the Church is facing are not unlike those faced by large corporations or the U.N.”
The volunteer projects that Burhans undertook for the Vatican and various Catholic groups, including one in which she mapped all the Catholic radio stations in Africa, didn’t improve her finances, but they earned her a reputation within the Church. In the fall of 2017, she was invited to take part in two Vatican conferences, one of which related to the mission of “Laudato Si’.” She was pleased to go but worried about finding an affordable place to stay.
“I explained my problem to a member of the Vatican staff, and they said, ‘Oh, just stay in the Domus”—a guesthouse next to St. Peter’s Basilica—“cardinals do it all the time,’ ” she told me. “My room was on the floor below the Pope’s apartment, and I’d see him at meals, in the dining room. There were cardinals from all over the world there, too, and I had my maps with me, on the table. The cardinals were all, like, ‘We want copies of these.’ ” She had printed those maps on paper and canvas, partly because she assumed that printed maps would be easier than digital maps to demonstrate, especially to the Church’s elderly prelates. Those maps would not have seemed remarkable to anyone outside the leadership of the Church. (Some of them were smaller versions of the big map I’d seen hanging over her desk.) But the cardinals were amazed. “They’d never seen the global Church before,” Burhans said. She became known at the Vatican as the Map Lady.
In the summer of 2018, Burhans went to Rome again, for another conference, and had a chance to describe her project directly to the Pope. Two years earlier, when visiting the Vatican on her way home from Nairobi, she had met not just with the two priests in the Secretariat of State’s office but also with Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, of Ghana, who was one of the principal contributors to “Laudato Si’.” Burhans told me, “I showed him my prototype, and we talked for an hour. He said that an early encounter with using maps for change was when he was a kid in Ghana and mining companies came into his village with their maps and took everyone’s land.”
When she met with the Pope, Turkson acted as her interpreter. She gave Francis a map that showed the percentage of Catholics in every diocese in the world, and explained how that map related to the bigger projects she envisioned. Francis seemed interested, she told me; he said that he had never seen anything like it. Still, their conversation was brief, and she didn’t think anything would come of it. Shortly before she flew home, though, she received an e-mail saying that Francis was interested in establishing a Vatican cartography institute, on a six-month trial basis, with her as its head.
Burhans was elated: this would likely be the first female-founded department in the history of the Roman Curia. Still, she knew that she had to turn him down. The offer came with no budget, other than a small stipend for herself. “If I’d said yes, it would have been a total failure,” she said. So she returned to the United States, and went to work on a blueprint for the kind of cartography institute that she believed the Church needed. When I first spoke with her, in late 2019, the United Nations had recently named her its Young Champion of the Earth for North America, a prize for environmentalists between the ages of eighteen and thirty. She was also working on a proposal for the Vatican which included a seventy-nine-page prospectus for a ten-month trial project, the cost of which she estimated at a little more than a million dollars. The prospectus included her outline for the environmental mission she believed the Church should undertake, as well as explanations (illustrated by interactive maps and graphs) of how G.I.S. could be used to support and coördinate other ecclesiastical activities, among them evangelization, real-estate management, papal security, diplomacy, and ongoing efforts to end sexual abuse by priests. She submitted her prospectus to the Pope’s office, and booked a return to Rome for April, so that she could attend a conference and, she hoped, negotiate a final configuration for the cartography institute with Vatican officials.
Amonth before her planned trip back, Burhans travelled to California to give a talk in a lecture series at Esri and, among other things, to meet with officials of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with whom she was discussing several projects, including one related to homelessness. (That archdiocese is a good example of the complexity of the relationship between Church property and the environment; its assets include twenty-one oil wells, which have produced fumes and pollutants over the years that have allegedly caused area residents to become ill.) I met Burhans in San Francisco, and we went to see David Rumsey, who made a fortune in real estate thirty years ago, then mostly retired and became one of the world’s leading collectors of historical maps. Many of those maps are now stored at the David Rumsey Map Center, at Stanford University. In a private gallery in the basement of his house, he showed Burhans a recent purchase: an enormous three-volume atlas of Catholic dioceses, commissioned by the Vatican and printed in 1858. “This came to me from Amsterdam in a big box,” he said.
“Wow,” Burhans said. She opened a volume—bare-handed, because, Rumsey said, people who handle old books are clumsier when they wear gloves—and turned, at random, to a page showing the region that includes modern-day Israel and Palestine. The text was in Italian (Giudea, Arabia Petrea, Idumea Orientale), and the fourteen depicted dioceses were hand-colored, in half a dozen pastel shades. Most of the names and political boundaries shown on the map have changed since the eighteen-hundreds, but the existence of the atlas, Burhans said, demonstrated that the Church was once deeply committed to documenting the scope of its dominion—a precedent for GoodLands.
Burhans gave her talk at Esri on March 3rd. Six days later, Italy announced a national quarantine, and Burhans cancelled her trip to Rome. She flew back to Connecticut on March 16th. The plane was nearly empty, but a man sitting near her was perspiring heavily and coughing. On March 22nd, she noticed the first covid-19 symptoms in herself.
She was sick for three months. Characteristically, she mapped her condition, in an interactive graphic containing more than six hundred and fifty points of medical data, organized in a dozen overlapping layers. Her covid map documents her symptoms: a temperature that rose above a hundred degrees for weeks; a heart rate that spiked at more than two hundred beats per minute; a blood-oxygen level that occasionally fell below eighty per cent after physical exertion; more than a week without eating; the loss and restoration, twice, of her senses of taste and smell. The map contains a photo log of dermatological changes, the results of all her medical tests, and a day-by-day chronicle of her mental state. There are also screenshots of her Google search history: her memory was so impaired that she kept forgetting what she’d been thinking about. She was never admitted to the hospital or given supplemental oxygen, but doctors monitored her remotely. “At one point, a doctor sent an ambulance for me, to take me to the emergency room,” she said. “I didn’t think I was that sick, but when the E.M.T. saw me he looked like he was having a panic attack, and I thought I must be dying.” Her covid map is, in effect, a physiological information system. “If you did this for multiple patients and combined them,” she said, “you might see that so-called ‘long-haul’ covid is actually an underlying condition, or maybe it’s some other festering infection, totally unrelated. It would be useful for differential diagnosis, because there’s so much going on with this disease and so much that we don’t know.”
For the time being, the pandemic has almost certainly removed Burhans’s cartographic institute from the agenda of anyone in the Holy See. One reason is that the Vatican’s budget normally includes substantial revenues from its museums, which have been at least partly closed for almost a year. Another reason is that the pandemic has stressed Church operations at every level, from individual parishes on up. Many Catholic health-care facilities have been overwhelmed by virus cases, including some in the parts of the world where Catholic clergy and laypeople are principal dispensers of aid of all kinds. Burhans told me that, nevertheless, the pandemic has made the technological revolution that she envisages more important. “Data infrastructure is so unsexy that it’s not a major issue for the Catholic Church or its donors, but it’s absolutely critical,” she said. She added that, if the Church mapped all the Catholic hospitals in the world, it could share the information with groups that could use it to make better decisions about health care. GoodLands is primarily an environmental organization, but Burhans’s ultimate goal is to reform the Church’s entire mode of operation: “They could save billions if they embraced this, as well as improving the world in every single ministry they do.”
One of the Church’s weaknesses in that regard has historically been one of its strengths: the fact that it has access to an immense pool of deeply committed but extremely inexpensive labor. This is why the Church has often seemed to be handicapped by a lack of expertise; its operations tend to be managed by Sisters and clergy, who are cheap and plentiful, rather than by people with lay experience and advanced degrees. “The Church’s entire financial model does not work with people who need to feed children and send them to school and own a car,” Burhans said. “This is a moral issue, too, because we see lay teachers at Catholic schools who can’t afford to send their own kids to the same school.” In his Easter letter last year, Pope Francis observed that the pandemic had hugely exacerbated economic stresses that were already being endured by people all over the world. “This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage,” he wrote—advice that the Church has yet to apply to itself.
Ilast visited Burhans in August, after she’d recovered from covid. She was living and working at a three-hundred-acre Catholic “educational and environmental association,” about thirty-five miles northwest of New Haven. She had moved there temporarily, mostly so that she wouldn’t have to spend any more time cooped up in her hobbit hole, where she had lived while she was sick. She had been given a large apartment on the second floor of the association’s main house, and she had set up an office in what appeared to be an old sleeping porch. She had connected her computers to the association’s Internet hub by running three hundred feet of Ethernet cable across rooms, along hallways, and down staircases. (Since then, the association has added Wi-Fi.)
Burhans is still in contact with officials at the Vatican, and she has faith that the Pope will eventually return to her proposal. “If the Vatican suddenly says yes, I’ll drop everything and go,” she told me. In the meantime, though, GoodLands plans to expand its mission to include lay clients, both for-profit and nonprofit: real-estate companies, asset-management firms, universities, land trusts, and similar organizations. She has turned away such clients in the past, but will do so no longer. “The same approach that we’ve used for Catholic properties can be used for other landholders,” she said. “What we do has value for any large property owner who cares about the environment, and in order to scale this work we need to serve everyone.” She isn’t certain, yet, how to make all that happen. But she has ideas. ♦Published in the print edition of the February 8, 2021, issue, with the headline “Promised Land.”