On June 7th, 1971, J.I. Rodale died of a heart attack during a taping of the Dick Cavett show. After boasting to Cavett that he would live to the age of 100, when the show went to break Rodale slumped over in his chair and died shortly thereafter. Robert Rodale, who had been president of Rodale publishing since 1954, would now be the figurehead for the company and for the organic agriculture and preventative health movements. Fortuitously, he took control in the period when Rodale magazines, which had labored largely in obscurity under J.I.’s leadership, were now capturing the attention of countercultural communalists and back-to-the-landers. Between 1968 and 1971 Organic Gardening and Prevention readership had doubled.
To get out from under his father’s looming shadow, Robert Rodale came up with a whole series of programs and ideas that distinguished his organic vision from his father’s. As he stated in 1976 “I’m quieter, perhaps more introverted [than my father] and I have a concept of organic living—a simpler more conservative way of life.” Responding to America’s recessionary economy and the early 1970s OPEC oil embargo, Robert argued for local self-sufficiency with the “Regeneration Project” and the “Cornucopia Project.” Combined these plans proposed regional food, energy, and retail independence from the global commercial network.
The similarities between Robert Rodale’s ideas and the contemporary “food revolution” are striking. In a 1980 Organic Gardening editorial, Rodale explained that the intent of the “Cornucopia Project” was “to create a sustainable food system that is not only organic farming but a regionalization of the food system based on fresh foods and foods that are in season.” In a 1981 editorial titled “The New Diet that Works,” Rodale pitched “a new diet for all the people in this region—heavy, thin, rich, and poor. We call it the Local Diet.” Sound familiar? If you are an optimist, you might see Rodale as the prescient and unrecognized father of “localism,” an idea that took time to catch on. If you are a pessimist, you might see current “localism” as a recurring aspirational theme in the American cultural imagination that comes and goes with uncertain impact on the broader economic system. You decide.