Value Through Innovation
Mapping the Worldwide Holdings of the Catholic Church to Use the Land for Good
Molly Burhans, a young activist and founder of GoodLands, is using geographic information systems (GIS) to map the worldwide holdings of the Catholic Church as an inventory of ownership and potential investment for society, health, security and ecological justice. Burhans and her group are mapping archived Vatican holdings that have never been recorded using GIS software — a revolutionary step toward committing them to ecological planning, environmental protection, climate mitigation, sustainability of natural resources, and a potential contribution to a global renaissance.
As we speculate on new forms of valuation of Nature, we can be easily intimidated by barriers to change, the dis-integrated connections between financial and social endeavors, between institutions and individuals, to the point that advocacy can seem often like a hollow cry, into an indifferent wildness where echoes never sound. Activists — myself among them — frequently, in the context of contradictory social and political organization, argue that change can only be accomplished one individual at a time. How do we move recalcitrant regulation and governance, established markets and financial institutions, associations, public and private, that when confronted with change fall back on doubt, lack of confidence, and defeat, intimidated by the prospect? I argue for a vast community of Citizens of the Ocean, a collective of the like-minded bound together by commitment to change; but, even if we were millions, what difference would it make in these troubled times?
Sometimes, the answer emerges just that way, from the mind and determination of a single person who puts forward an idea that represents just the kind of breakthrough expected by a fresh perspective and the transformative application of new technologies, new tools just right for work no one has dared to do before.
I give you the example of Molly Burhans, a young woman profiled in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine, written by David Owen, entitled “How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change.” Ms. Burhans has founded a small non-profit, GoodLands, to apply the emerging application of GIS, geographic information systems, to map the worldwide holdings of the Catholic Church, to includes place of worship, convents, schools, art, archives, as well as farms, forests, watersheds, and what some have estimated to exceed two hundred million acres, an inventory of ownership of, as David Owen describes, “probably the largest non-state landowner in the world.” If the value of these properties were invested in practical response and creative application, they would become a significant force for society, for health, for security and ecological justice.
Here is the GoodLands Mission statement: A fundamental way to address many of the issues we confront as a society today is to use the land and properties we already have more thoughtfully. GoodLands provides the information, insights, and implementation tools for the Catholic Church to leverage its landholdings to address pressing issues, from environmental destruction to mass human migration.
We combine community involvement, design, and mapping technology to reveal high-impact opportunities for land-use strategies that have a regenerative impact on environmental, social, and economic systems, while transforming a sense of ownership of land into a sense of stewardship among organizations through top-down planning efforts combined with bottom-up community involvement and education.
Ms. Burhans, and her small group of often-volunteer colleagues, have attempted to map these holding using GIS software using records, ancient and disorganized in the Vatican and archives, that have never been recorded collectively before with accuracy, efficiency, and purpose. What she proposes is to visualize the location and inter-location of these properties as revolutionary steps toward valuing and committing them to ecological planning, environmental protection, climate mitigation, sustainability of natural resources, affirmation of the essential principles of Catholic Doctrine, and contribution to global renaissance. It seems so complicated, based on something so simple and true.
In 2015, Pope Francis published an encyclical, Laudato Si — On Care of our Common Home, in which he addresses the moral imperative to steward our natural world for the benefit of succeeding generations, and issued a call that speaks beyond Catholicism to every person on Earth. “I urgently appeal, then,” he writes, “for a new dialogue on how we are shaping the future of our planet… We require a new and universal solidarity…” The Pope speaks specifically and eloquently about the ocean as “a global commons…” “I am interested,” he continues, “in how spirituality can motivate us to a more compassionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without being spiritually capable of inspiring us, without an ‘interior impulse’ which encourages, motivates, nourishes, and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity.”
Individual and communal. Science and technology. One young technologist and the leader of a global religion: consider the value inherent in the meeting of these two minds, the application of natural value by committing property to the purpose of renewal, the value of individual and collective behaviors, the value of the land and the sea and the people sustained, to peace and justice and civilization. So yes, one person can make a difference. Let’s help Molly Burhans and GoodLands make it so.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.