The first time Molly Burhans visited the Vatican, she was there as a 26-year-old to ask permission to make the first-ever global database map of the Catholic Church. She’s not just painting lines on a globe, though — her maps gather layers of geographical, political, economic, and ecological data to empower the Church to use her lands wisely, especially in the fight against climate change.
For this, the United Nations just named Molly North America’s “Young Champion of the Earth,” which is the highest environmental honor for 18- to 30-year-olds. Being a “young champion” hasn’t been easy, though. Grotto talked with her about her journey as a trailblazer, the stakes of climate change, and how she finds hope in what looks to many like a dim future.
Can you tell us what your job is? What do you do?
I’m the founder and executive director of GoodLands. We’re making land work for good. We’re helping religious communities all over the world better understand their property through maps, and use that information and powerful mapping tools to make better decisions about how to manage and steward their properties.
At GoodLands, we want to see — during the next century — Catholic conservation become the largest network of conservation that the world has seen. Just based on the sheer number of institutions and parishes affiliated with it, the Church has a lot of opportunity to do good. We are positioned to become the global leaders in conservation in this 21st century.
We’re launching the Catholic Parks Network, for example — the goal of that and our mission is to inspire serene harmony between humans, the natural environment, the built environment, and God.
If we’re going to address climate change sufficiently, then the Catholic Church and other faiths and anyone that owns a lot of land is going to play a very significant role in that movement.
How much land does the Catholic Church have?
The Catholic Church is very likely one of the largest, if not the largest, non-governmental land holder in the world just based on the sheer number of institutions and parishes affiliated with it. Some people say it might be the size of France or the size of Spain. I don’t think we can actually make a proper estimate about acreage until we have it mapped. We can just know that it’s a lot.
You’re working on that.
Why are maps so important for conservation?
Digital maps are bringing us into an entirely new age of geographical awareness. It’s very exciting. We see maps widely used in the intelligence community, in conservation, in land use planning, in marketing, in agriculture. These really powerful tools, they drive digital transformation organizations. They provide records, and they provide a way for people with a lot of different goals to actually sit down and get stuff done. It’s really eye-opening once you actually understand the power of maps, especially the digital maps.
Maps are both art and science. They take scientific information and data created by researchers, by studies, and then they make it into a format that’s both beautiful and very valuable and useful.
What’s it been like to be a young adult committing your life to a nonprofit venture like this? It sounds like the skills you have could be pretty valuable in the tech and data sectors.
When I founded this, I founded it out of one of my mentor’s houses that they had donated space in. I couldn’t afford to rent anywhere. I was eating beans like every night. I was making less than $10,000 a year for the first two years. Really scared. I remember crying over a $20 bus ticket in the Hartford bus station. I had really important meetings in Boston. I missed the bus and I was just so upset because I couldn’t fathom dropping another $20 for a bus ticket.
Working towards a goal, the resources that I get — even not just monetary, but my own personal time — almost all goes directly back into ensuring that this can become a reality. I could walk away to a much higher-paying private sector job, but I won’t because I believe in this.
Discernment is so key. Discernment is really key in making sure that you’re saying yes to God. I feel like so much of my journey has just been saying yes to God. It’s intimidating. Sometimes it’s not the plan that we have in mind, but it’s the best possible plan. God knows so much more than we ever will. He knows what’s best for us and best for the Church and the world. You’ve just got to trust. You’ve got to trust.
What would you say to other young adults who have a passion they feel called to follow?
If you have an idea that needs to happen — something very important to share with the world that is authentically from your heart and you’ve discerned that it’s your calling — I would say absolutely go for it. The fear will be there. But that’s what courage is. Having courage doesn’t mean you’re not afraid. It’s moving forward in the face of fear.
I think it’s really important to stay humble and stay a learner and stay open to the valid advice that people give you, to the supporting words and kind words. There’s a certain tone and nastiness that can be out there. It’s really important to just rise above it and realize that if you’re out in public for environmentalism, and faith, healthcare even — anything — there are going to be people that are going to criticize as much as they can. You have to just really discern and keep studying. Understand the importance and value of your gifts and talents and grace that you can bring to the world through discerning and following your calling.
It’s really important to surround yourself with mentors. I could not emphasize this enough. Mentors and a good spiritual director, if possible, because they have so much more wisdom and experience. It’s something that every 20-something-year-old goes through — you’re going through life and you’re learning. We’re all young professionals. You can’t beat yourself up over the small stuff. Otherwise, you’ll never get anything done.
What’s at stake with climate change, and what role can the Church play in this fight?
I think we’ve got like 12 years to not completely destroy the planet and turn things around. When people hear that stuff, I think it’s easy to shut down because it’s so big and so scary in a way. There’s a lot of fear and there’s a lot of hopelessness out there from this. But you have to understand the current environment and the current conditions well to be able to change and create a different future — to be able to model scenarios to say, “If we do make these changes, this is the better future we have. Or if we don’t, this is the future.”
I hope that people can find less fear and more courage to just take action to go towards that better future, even if it isn’t perfect. No time has been perfect since the Garden of Eden.
We have the power to change. We have the power to find common ground for caring for a common home. We can make a difference. I’m absolutely convinced that if faith the size of a mustard seed can enable us to move mountains, then it can help us contribute to their conservation, preservation, and integrity for generations to come.
What would you say to someone that was feeling hopeless about climate change?
There’s tremendous hope. When we look at the history of the Church, we’re the largest humanitarian aid network in the world, largest network of healthcare — 26 percent of healthcare facilities are Catholic. Largest non-governmental network of education serving over 57.6 million students in secondary and primary schools.
We are a Church that gets things done. We are around for the long haul. I think it’s super empowering to realize that we have this amazing faith that compels us to do extraordinary works throughout history, whether it’s establishing this network of healthcare.
While it may seem scary, it’s not one person that does these ever. It’s not even a single saint that founded the healthcare network. That all of our initiatives and talents are truly needed to address climate change.
I think if you’re feeling hopeless, I think it’s really important to realize, first, that one person can change the world. If you go out and you do a tree planting project with ecological integrity, you are changing the world. If you help lift people up and motivate them to also make change, you’re changing the world. Even just by not throwing plastic on the ground and being conscious — these are all very valid, very important actions that you can take to improve the state of our common home.