Jonathan Safran Foer is far from a militant on the subject of eating meat.
That may be surprising since the title of his book, "Eating Animals," would seem to be a call to vegetarianism.
But Foer, the author of Fairfield Public Library's 2011 "One Book, One Town" selection, said he wrote his book to learn where meat came from and that a mistake vegetarians make is the "all or nothing" approach.
"I believe in an incremental approach," Foer said to about 600 people in Roger Ludlowe Middle School's auditorium Thursday night.
Foer said he tries to be an environmentalist by buying energy-saving appliances and turning off lights when a room is empty. But he said he also flies on airplanes.
But flying on airplanes doesn't mean Foer calls his wife and tells her to turn on all the lights in the house. "It's not, 'If I can't be a perfect environmentalist, I'm not going to do anything,' " he said. "Being hypocritical is better than not doing anything."
"Unfortunately, it's framed 'You're this or you're that.' 'The light switch is on or it's off.' You make a choice three times a day."
Foer said he knew someone who didn't want to become a vegetarian because he couldn't give up eating his grandmother's ham at Christmas. "If you're using one meal to excuse 1,000 meals, that is just crazy," he said.
Foer said there was no chance 50 percent of Americans would be vegetarians in 10 years but there was a good chance that 50 percent of meals people eat would be vegetarian in 10 years.
Foer said the scariest part about writing "Eating Animals" was the secrecy that surrounds factory farms, which he said supply 99 percent of the meat that Americans eat. He said if someone wants to visit an orchard to find out where their apples come from, they'll have no problem. But that's not the case if they want to visit where their meat comes from.
"If you want to know where your meat comes from, you're totally out of luck," he said. "I called dozens and dozens of these companies and nobody said, 'Yes.' "
Foer said he eventually dressed all in black and scaled a barbed-wire fence with animal-rights activists at night so he could see a factory farm. Foer said they didn't break trespassing laws because a loophole exists that allows people to trespass to help an animal that doesn't have enough food or water.
"Farmers looked to nature as a model, and factory farmers said, 'There might be a better way to do it.' By better, they mean more profitable," Foer said. He said factory farming was "a perversion of nature" that was "happening in secret" and that would repel most people if they knew about it.
Growth hormones and antibiotics used in factory farming have turned human beings into science experiments, Foer said, adding that food allergies are more prevalent than they used to be and girls enter puberty earlier than they used to. He said factory farming also was inhumane to animals and damaging to the environment.
But Foer said the "insanity" of factory farming was coupled with "a position of ignorance" among people who eat meat from those farms.
Foer said 96 percent of Americans think animals should have legal protection against cruelty and nearly everyone shares the same opinion on air pollution and water pollution because they're universal values. "We have to find a way to have a conversation that reflects those universal values," he said.
Most of Foer's two-hour talk was devoted to questions and answers, and an audience member said Foer seemed ambivalent about eating meat and wondered why he didn't take a firmer stance against it.
Foer said he spent a lot of time on small, family-owned farms and found it difficult to argue against what they were doing. He said their farm animals ate well, had a lot of space, and, while animals were slaughtered at the end of their lives, the killing was done as humanely and unexpectedly as possible.
The question of whether an animal has a right to continue to live was different than the question of whether an animal has a right not to suffer, Foer said.
"I tried not to cross the line from things we can all agree on to things that are murkier," he said. He said the argument against factory farming was compelling, while the argument against eating meat was less so.
Family farmers have been the most vocal advocates of "Eating Animals," Foer said. "This [factory farming] industry has not damaged anyone more than the family farmer. They suffer for our 50-cent hamburger," he said.
Foer said he didn't eat meat exclusively from family farms because they couldn't be scaled to the point where food from them would be affordable to everyone and could feed everyone."Why do we keep searching for the exceptions? Why do we search for the 5-year-old that has a good job?" he asked.
People may be surprised by how little meat means to them if they really think about it, and humans are very good at saying "No" to things they want, Foer said.
Foer said most Americans eat meat because it tastes good and he thinks it tastes good too. But Foer asked if the taste of meat was so good that it trumped everything else. "It's not a question I can answer for anybody else," he said.
Foer said nothing was more difficult in writing "Eating Animals" than striking the right tone - one of "an outstretched hand, rather than a wagging finger."
"This book does not close the subject. I hope it opens the subject," Foer said. "I'm always eager to have people disagree with me; not only because it's exciting, but also because I'm confident I'll win the argument."
Foer said he wrote "Eating Animals" after the birth of his child because he realized he would have to make choices for his child and wanted them to be good ones.
Ashleigh Moore, 27, said the secrecy surrounding factory farms was coupled with the government's promotion of eating meat through the food pyramid that recommends how many servings of each food group someone should have. She said she was surprised by how the information on factory farms "was just hidden from us."
Joe Saponare, 31, of Norwalk, said he gave up eating meat about a year ago after watching the movie "Food, Inc." and for a lot of the reasons in Foer's book.
Liz Hoffmann, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 8, said she's been a vegetarian for 35 years and that people would have a hard time eating meat if they knew where it came from. "A person can choose to eat meat, but, when they do, they are also choosing to support the intense suffering of industrialized farm animals, choosing to put their health and the health of their children at risk and choosing to do irreparable harm to the environment," she said.
Hoffmann said "Eating Animals" gives "my feelings a voice as well as facts to back up my feelings" and that Foer writes in a way that is "totally engaging."
"I commend the Fairfield Library staff who had the courage to choose this important book. Courage is the operative word because this book asks you to examine your food choices and presents the unsavory practices of industrialized farming which support those choices," she said.
Fairfield Town Librarian Karen Ronald said Foer's presentation was articulate and thoughtful and that she was pleased so many people turned out to hear it. "I think we all learned something tonight," she said.