The Billings Outpost

‘Macbeth’ provides advice on small-town growth


“Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles” Macbeth (V, ii, 65-66)

The Bakken Formation’s oil reserves have created a boom in Eastern Montana, western North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan. Improved methods of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of subterranean rock formations to release trapped oil have helped this area experience an oil boom resulting in a multitude of benefits and their corresponding problems.

“The … sudden boom has reduced unemployment and given the state of North Dakota a billion-dollar budget surplus. But the industrialization and population boom has also put a strain on water supplies, sewage systems, and government services of the small towns and ranches in the area” (

Lessons from history and literature are stubbornly resisted when the seductive promise of wealth presents itself. Just as Shakespeare’s Macbeth succumbs to the expectation of power, so small-town Montana demonstrates its willingness to sacrifice its very soul for the possibility of prosperity.

Money is power and power is seductive. Poor communities in Eastern Montana are easily seduced by the potential power their resources provide.

Roundup, a town that has gone through several boom-and-bust cycles, once again believes itself poised at the brink of prosperity. However, only a few years ago Roundup was similarly positioned when the Signal Peak Coal Mine began production.

The community waited eagerly for the coal proceeds to trickle into the community in the form of property tax relief, real estate sales, and business prospects. Instead, the community found itself at the mercy of bureaucrats at all levels who granted the mining company various tax breaks; most miners chose to live in Billings rather than live in Roundup; and few businesses noticed greater sales except bars and casinos. Empty businesses still line Main Street.

Ignoring the lesson of that lost windfall, the community awaits the development of oil and its potential monetary benefits. Construction has already taken place at a site north of town, and community leaders find themselves planning how to spend the money before it is in the coffers.  Guilty of what Macbeth termed “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/And falls on the other —” (I, vii, 27-28). Roundup anticipates a rosy outcome in spite of historical disappointment in prior boom-and-bust scenarios.

Citizens who express concern about possible negative consequences of rapid growth from oil proceeds based upon environmental or societal impacts are criticized by their more progressive neighbors. “…(W)hy do you start, and seem to fear/Things that do sound so fair?” (I,ii,62-62) Banquo wonders as he and Macbeth are promised a great future by the Weird Sisters. Yet it is Banquo who learns too late that the appearance of good tidings does not always accurately represent reality. The downside to his heirs being kings is his own death at the hands of the ambitious Macbeth.

Likewise Roundup and the rest of small-town Montana must sacrifice their lifestyles in order to accommodate the collateral damage that results from too-rapid growth. Sometimes those who advocate examination of alternatives prior to acting are better listened to than criticized. Erring on the side of caution is not cowardice, but wisdom. Had Macbeth followed his instinct instead of his wife’s urging when he was ready to “proceed no further in this business” (I, vii, 34), his future may have been more secure.

Roundup mirrors other small communities greedy for good news. Fresh from a decade of drought and reeling from record snowfall and hundred-year floods, Eastern Montana finds itself desperately grasping any prospective relief.  All around us prosperity grows and we see that as proof that our ship, too, will be lifted with the rising tide. Meanwhile, we are critical of those cautious voices who claim they mean to do good by preventing resource extraction. Yet perhaps our criticism exemplifies the very thing Lady Macduff speaks of: “I have done no harm. But I remember now/I am in this earthly world, where to do harm/Is often laudable, to do good sometime/Accounted dangerous folly” (IV, ii, 81-84).

Whether Roundup and other impoverished Eastern Montana towns embrace the prosperity oil speculators promise or choose a more cautious path, there will be no shortage of lessons from literature and history. Shakespeare knew nothing of the oil business, nor did he imagine the existence of today’s technology, but he did understand the nuances of greed, prosperity, power, and uncontrolled growth.

We could do far worse than to learn from the demise of Macbeth; we could do far worse than to learn from the blind ambition of Lady Macbeth. Selecting the wrong path in this complex argument could have devastating long-term results. We may learn too late that our haste to develop leads to too costly destruction: “’Tis safer to be that which we destroy/Than by our destruction dwell in doubtful joy” (III, ii, 8-9).


Tom Thackeray lives in Roundup.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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