In the international hand-wringing over America's still-heavy energy consumption, the United States frequently is portrayed as an uncaring wastrel. Citing the massive foreign trade deficit, critics bemoan the failure to pass an energy bill as evidence that the U.S. doesn't have - or want - an energy policy. If only there were some legislation, they say, it would show signs of real commitment.

The myth began with Jimmy Carter, who campaigned in 1976 on the charge that the U.S. was the only major industrial nation that didn't have an energy policy. It wasn't really so then, but Americans accepted the notion almost without question. Now the battle cry has spread to Europe as well. Financial experts are blaming the lack of an energy policy for the decline of the dollar.

The fact is, however, that despite the absence of any grandiose formal energy program, the United States does have a national energy policy - and the evidence is it's working on a fairly significant scale. The changes began after the Arab oil embargo in the autumn of 1973. And they've been intensifying steadily ever since.

Without any major energy law to require it, Americans already are well on the way toward accomplishing some of the major goals of the Carter energy proposal - from converting industry to caol-fired power plant to cutting back automobile fuel consumption to insulating homes and factories. Indeed, the progress has been quite startling, even to many crites.

Moreover, apart from the nebulous symbolism involved, experts agree there's little real evidence that the energy bill now stalemated in Congress would do very much to accelerate that process. The one major provision that might have cut oil usage even modestly - the crude oil equalization tax the president proposed - is dead, and even that wouldn't have cut imports very dramatically.

The single most important force behind this conversion has been the sharp rise in energy prices over the past 3 1/2 years. Despite controls average prices of domestic crude oil have risen 10 percent a year, while the average retail price of natural gas soared 83 percent in the three years ending last July. As a result, Americans have cut consumption significantly.

Morever, legislation already on the books from previous years has prodded industry and consumers into conserving further. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 mandated relatively stiff mileage standards for U.S. automobiles and trucks, while controls set by the 1974 energy act have prodded utilities and industry into significant coal conversion.

Alan Greenspan, former Ford administration chief economic adviser, argues that, while the effort still is not enough, "people just don't recognize what's happened" as a result of these increases in energy costs. "Some very significant actions already have been taken," he says. "It's simply not true that we aren't doing anything about the problem."

The extent of the nation's turnaround from pre-1973 days is best shown by comparison with the president's program.The major aims of Carter's energy plan of last April were to raise prices and spur utilities and industries into converting to coal, improving auto fuel efficiency, broadening insulation of homes, spawning more nuclear power plants and encouraging new exploration.

While none of these proposals has become law, figures show the U.S. already has made signifciant progress in most of these areas (except for construction of nuclear power plant, which has become entangled in regulatory red tape). The shift, which began two years ago, is just now beginning to produce results.

There are these developments.

Conversion of utilities from gas and oil to coal has gone along at a fairly rapid clip. The National Coal Association says hundreds of utilities have shifted back to coal in the past two years, and 241 new coal boiler industry officals report not one oil- or gas-fired boiler has been ordered since late 1975.

In basic manufacturing industries , the shift has been less dramtic, but still visible. In 1974, some 80 percent oil- or gas-fired compared with only 20 percent for coal or waste fuel. Last year, the orders were for 40 percent oil- or gas-fired and 60 percent coal or waste fuel. Morever, industry leaders say the trend is likely to accelerate.

Despite suspected padding in Environmnetal Protection Agrency mileage estimates, there's little doubt the auto industry has shifted to more-fuel efficent cars and trucks than before the 1973 oil embargo - and that buyers are more conscious of gasoline consumption. The major auto makers now offer a larger selection of small market.

Americans' push to insulate their homes has been so intense that here now is an acute shortage of insulation materials - a situation that has sent prices soaring and, in too many cases, forced buyers to turn to inferior products. Indeed, the home insulation tax credit for fear of exacerbating the situation.

Conservation of electric power and other energy by industry and consumers has improved significiantly in the past few years. Reports from around the country show manufacturing firms as well as private citizens are becoming more conservation concious. people are finding there are significant saving in cutting consumption. And they're responding in king.

The one snag is in the shift to nuclear power plants. Mainly because of heavy restri:to nuclear power plants. Mainly because of heavy restrictions and regulations, constrution of nulcear plants has gone more slowly than many officials had hoped. But industry projections still show nuclear power likely to triple its share of electic-power generation by 1985. Solar energy, still minuscule is coming along faster than expected.

Finally, new exploration for energy has been increasing steadily, if not quite at the crash pace some planners had hope for in previous years. Industry statistics show operation of new rigs at historically high rates, and recent increases in natural gas prices have spurred new exploration there. Experts say it's unlikey either will taper-off very soon.

The results of all this have been fairly dramatic. While the nation's economy has grown by some 13 percent since 1973, demand for petroleum has increase - 7.1 percent. On a day-to-day basis, petroleum demand now is running at about 17.5 million barrels a day, on a seasonally adjusted basis - virtually unchanged from its levels in 1973.

The widely cited high level of oil imports now plaguing the nation's foregin trade deficit is mainly the result of higher prices, not import volume U.S. oil import are up 23 per cent since 1975. But this year, imports are running at about 9.9 million barrels in 1977, when the country was plagued with a severe winter.

And analyals at Data Resources Inc., an economic consulting firm project that becuase of the shift to more fuel efficent cars, demand for gasoline in this country will remain at present levels through 1980 - even though Americans will be driving more mile each year. That means, in effect, that consumption levels will slow markedly.

The question is, what, if anything would the pending energy bill do to speed this process? Not very much, according to both administration and congressional energy experts. Although the bill in its present form does contain some modest incentives for coal conversion, it has little to prod industry beyond what already is taking place.

Even if the bill had been enacted in the form Carter proposed, estimates by private consultants show it would have saved less than 2 million barrels a day by 1985 - not a very dramatic difference. (The president originally predicated hid plan would save 4.5 million barrels a day, but that's been pared since, both by the administration anf outside experts).

The main value of the pending energy bill now would appear to be mostly symbolic - both to end existing uncentainty over what the government plans to require from industries and consumers and to show foreigners that we really do care, after all. Both, arguably, are worthwhile and important functions. In fact, however, the bill would only be consecrating what already is under way.

Admittedly, the conservation effort now in progress isn't adequate by some planners' standards. Most experts agree the U.S. still needs to do more, and that greater conservation will be required if the nation - and the world - are to avoid a serious pinch in future years. But to say the U.S. hasn't done anything to solve its energy problem simply is dead wrong.