Climate change is a hot topic these days. This past summer alone was riddled with climate emergencies: the intense heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, persistent drought and widespread wildfires in the western United States, and just recently, Hurricane Ida in the Gulf Coast. Our 24-hour news cycle covers these disasters frequently and heavily, often leaning towards “doomsday” predictions if we don’t curb carbon emissions.
I’m not here to downplay climate change. It’s an urgent global issue, asking all of humanity to come together to solve. However, these often alarmist think pieces and news segments can tempt us into despair. They lead us to believe that there is no hope and to be paralyzed into fear and inaction. However, our faith challenges us to take a different path: hope. We are called to act because we know that Jesus is our hope and salvation: “For this we toil and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the savior of all, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10).
Molly Burhans, a cartographer and environmentalist, is living out that call to hope and action. She’s the founder of GoodLands, an organization that “enables the Catholic Church to use its extensive landholdings for good.” The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental landholder in the world, claiming over 177 million acres. However, as Molly discovered in her research after first founding GoodLands, much of the Church’s property remains undocumented or unrealized. She learned on a 2016 visit to the Vatican that, not only did the Vatican not have a cartography department to document their current landholdings, but their most recently created maps were last updated in 1901.
Molly set out to remedy that. Using her Master’s degree in Landscape Design and her proficiency in G.I.S. technology, her goal for GoodLands is to map out and analyze the Church’s global landholdings to best utilize its space and resources.
Maps, according to Molly, are essential in combating climate change. Implementing changes to land without understanding things like soil composition, hydrology, and native species, would be like constructing a building without a blueprint. Maps help us act with ecological integrity in a more equitable way. Ultimately, she hopes for the Church to become a world leader in sustainable practices and environmental justice, similar to how the Church leads in non-governmental provisions of health care, humanitarian aid, and education
In an article for The New Yorker, Molly shares that the idea for GoodLands first came to her when she attended a service retreat at a monastery in Pennsylvania. The convent boasted an extensive forest area and huge lawn space, yet the sisters didn’t have a plan for addressing things like invasive species, erosion, or forestry management practices.
Molly imagined that, if the sisters understood their land better, they could implement sustainable forest management that would help protect the forested area from loss due to wildfire, insects, and disease, as well as increase the value of the land itself and potentially generate revenue. Additionally, the sisters could incorporate sustainable farming practices to utilize their lawn to grow food for people in need. G.I.S. could help them to analyze their soil content to understand what crops grow best and where. As she continued her studies at Canisius College, Molly expanded her vision to include all of the Church’s landholdings, rather than an isolated monastery or convent.
Other than the fact that Molly focuses on Catholic landholdings, why should we consider climate change and its repercussions to be a uniquely Catholic concern? Pope Francis sought to address this in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si. He writes, “This sister [Mother 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 had endowed her.”
Our consumerist lifestyle has led us to squander the Earth’s resources with little thought to the negative effects of taking without giving back. Furthermore, the attitude of the “throwaway culture” disproportionately affects those in impoverished areas of the world (Laudato Si 48). Catholic Social Teaching calls us to always place the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. GoodLand’s vision of using land for good includes employing unutilized Church land to house climate refugees, as well as growing food and providing resources to people who are impoverished due to consumerist practices like overfishing, illegal logging, and excessive use of fossil fuels.
The GoodLands Vision states, “As we care for the earth, thoughtful land-management strategies foster a clean environment, promote public health, address social justice concerns, add beauty to the world, support life in its many species, and allow us to glorify God through our care for Creation.” Simply put, submitting to our call to steward the Earth glorifies God and upholds the dignity of all Creation, including that of our fellow human beings. Let us, as Molly has done, reflect on how we can respond to our own call to stewardship.