ENERGY, ENERGY, ENERGY -- who hasn't heard enough about energy?

Two years after the latest gas shortage, the energy crisis once again sems to be on hold. American auto companies are finally learning how to make small cars, although they still apparently need the help of the free-trade Reagan administration to keep the Japanese from overwhelming the market. Nuclear power seems to be gone with the wind. Solar energy? -- well, just about everbody now seems to know somebody who has a friend who has a relative whose neighbor just put a few solar collectors up on his roof.

Are things really changing, then? Are we making progress? Or are we just being lulled by events again, waiting to be blindsided by some new improbability coming out of the Middle East?

The one thing that seems to be keeping the sense of imperative alive, at least, are all the books being written about energy. Or perhaps it's the other way around. The enery crisis itself seems to have spawned a whole cottage industry of computer print-outs and two-volume studies, all continuously spewing out information telling us what the world is going to be like in the year 2020. All these books seem to be intimidating and a little incomprehensible. The question that naturally presents itself is whether they are being read by anyone besides the people who are preparing other studies intent on rebuffing them.

The two books at hand are almost perfectly typical in style, form and intent.

Energy: The Conservation Revolution is a fairly brief, well-researched effort by John H. Gibbons, director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and William U. Chandler, director of the Energy Conservation Project at the Environmental Policy Institute. The aim of the book is in the title. Although it presents a short but comprehensive view of the entire energy picture, the authors' main purpose is to argue that energy conservation now represents our best dollar value in energy investment.

The point is made persuasively, for the short run at least. Less than 10 years ago, the authors point out, the Ford Foundation was making news by arguing that with an all-out technological effort, we might be able to keep out energy growth from rising more than 25 percent over the next 30 years (most studies routinely predicted a 100 percent increase). Today, groups as respectable as the National Academy of Sciences seriously suggest that we may be able to get away with no energy growth and still have a growing economy over the next 25 years. The reason is that conservation and improved energy efficiency offer far more opportunity for energy saving than anyone previously realized.

The authors do a good job of detailing the arguments of their case. Industrial process heat can be recycled through several stages so that it isn't just used once and thrown away. Home appliances can be constructed far more efficiently. Industrial co-generation of electricity can recycle the steam that now wates 60 percent of the energy in boiler fuels. Cars can be built to get 50 miles per gallon of gasoline.

But the authors still cannot shake the idea that nothing can be done without initiative from the government. "It is our belief that improvements that are needed in terms of national security as well as economics will not come without stringent, technology-forcing government standards," they state.

Energy in a Finite World is almost a world apart. Written at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, the book has an unusually international flavor. Contributions were drawn from over 100 experts all over the world, including many from Soviet and Eastern European countries. Following a format that is becoming blessedly more familiar, the study is split into two volmes, with the main argument appearing in Volume I and the exhaustive technical detail corralled in Volume II. (Only Volume I is reviewed here.)

The startling thing about Energy in a Finite World is that is seems to have been written in a time-warp. It appears completely unaffected by the current conventional wisdom that says that so-called "soft" technologies, mainly solar energy, are the thing of the future. The book seems to have absolutely no awareness of the opinions of most of America's popular newspaper columnists -- which may be a good reason for paying attention to it.

For example, the authors actually have the chutzpah to present a methodical, unemotional case for the almost "unlimited" promise of nuclear energy. They note that a world built on breeder-reactor technology would be "self-sustaining" and capable of almost unlimited amounts of future growth. Solar energy, on the other hand, while it could be self-sustaining, would face limitations on how much energy it could provide. They are enthusiastic about solar's high technology, but are chary about growing "biomass" for fuel and other land-based shmemes -- calling it a "plantation world." They also point out the enormous capital investment that will be required to develop solar energy, something often overlooked by its enthusiasts.

The authors' major differance is in their global prespective. They note that most of the energy demand will eventually coming from the Third World, which is currently going through a population boom that will not level off until the world's numbers have doubled. Yet even then they are not too optimistic about our ability to change. They argue that we will probably go through the "easy" oil and gas by 2000, and then spend some time mining the more difficult oil shales and tar sands before we fianlly settle down to a self-sustaining energy system.

Energy in a Finite World is surprising for its dour refusal to predict technological miracles. But on the whole, I think I am ready to accpet the conclusions of both books. Conservation undoubtedly if our best dollar investment today, and it may be 10 to 15 years before we have exhausted the possibilities of improving our efficiency. But after that, it is hard to escape the constrictions of a world whoe fossil-fuel resources are gradually diminishing. In the end, our major task may be in adjusting ourselves to a world of never-ending technological changes.