IS IS NO easier for a civilization to accept the facts of its aging than for a man or woman to do so for themselves.History is littered with the corpses of societies that failed to read the true portents of their threshold moment - that point at which the bell curve of exponential growth, prosperity and rising life expectancies began to turn downward toward decline.

Despite the autopsies conducted by 20th Century minds ranging from Oswald Spengler to Lewis Mumford, many people continue to believe that technology will inevitably rescue our own civilization in any pinch. And yet, a bare 30 years after Henry Luce's proclaimed "American Century," we accept as normal the gross and permanent depletion of our oil and natural gas, diminished research in agriculture, an unemployable body of baby boomers, inner cities in decay, a government lost in well-meant paper costing perhaps $100 a billion a year, contingent national governmental commitments of $6.4 trillion, education grasping for a purpose.

Our crisis is not simply that of energy. It is one of self-indulgence on a gigantic scale.

To the historian, we seem to have compressed the final 400 years of the New Kingdom of Egypt and the final 200 years of Imperial Rome into the last decades of the 20th Century. We cannot credit technology as being our villain or our savior. The touchstone of a healthy civilization has always been its capacity to govern itself: to identify problems and to keep ahead of them by managing its technologies as well as its institutions.

The verdict that we are in trouble comes from four phenomena largely but not entirely peculiar to the present situation:

1. The fact of convergence, that nearly all problems - energy, government costs, trade, productivity, inflation, unemployment, international relations, demography, weather and even geophysics - are ever more interconnected and mutually reinforcing. It is not simply that a failure of crops in the Sahel, the Soviet Union or the United States has world repercussions. Such failures place a progressively greater strain on the structure of all institutions: prices, energy, banking, credit and governance. One can see this convergence in a physical way in the saturation of people and cars in such cities as Cairo, Rio or Bangkok; or in the declining nutrition of such countries as Indonesia as they have abandoned dependence on their own agriculture and come to import food from the United States.

2. The rapidity of world growth over the past 30 years in men, machines, energy consumption, demand for food and the service sector of government, amounting before 1970 to a doubling in most categories in about 15 years. The growth curve is really a bell curve, which can move downward along the same trajectory as that along which it rose: that is, unless constantly new input of technology, capital or cheap materials are injected into it. The most menacing fact is the probable exhaustion of world reserves of petroleum and natural gas by the year 2025, however many new superbasins are found.

3. The instability of political arrangements, particularly when competition for ever scarcer resources takes place. The United States functions in a web of international understandings, any single strand of which is essential to the whole. We depend today no less, and possibly more, on the oil resources of desert Saudi Arabia than on the contributions to NATO and Western defense of industrialized West Germany. In reverse fashion, our role as generator of capital or as consumer has incalculabel effects on countries as remote from each other as Iceland and Korea.

4. The tendency of technologies to live a life of their own, true in all eras but especially ours. The automobile has become the sorcerer's apprentice of our society, consuming our precious petroleum at will and setting itself up as the bellwether of economic prosperity.

How fragile or durable, then, is the fabric of our particular future? How does one demonstrate that, unless we move drastically and with great speed to apply a new ethic of extracting less from nature, but with more equitable distribution and a technology to match, we too can go the way of the Hittites and the Romans? A Brief Golden Age

THERE IS a paradox here: The mid-20th Century, with all its frailties, was possibly the Golden Age of History. With Hitler and Stalin laid to rest, longevity rising everywhere in the world, movements afoot to bring political self-determination to all nations, treaties to govern the Antarctic and outer space on the books, such limited manifestations of cold war as Korea and Vietnam could even conceivably be excused. Man could strive for a wider variety of accomplishments, and with greater freedom of movement than ever before in history. Mechanical slaves capable of doing the dirtiest work, from automobiles, bulldozers and telephones to computers, brought hope of surcease to laborers everywhere. They were able to do so because of cheap energy.

Despite the era's imperfections, in no other age of history have individual lives been more precious, hope more widely spread about, morality more international prevailing.

The tragedies of this Golden Age were three:

1. The overgrowth of populations of machines in the developed countries and of men in the developing countries.

2. The consequent failure of the developing countries to catch up in ways in standard of living and access to resources.

3. The wastefulness of the affluent countries, led by the United States, helping to cause gross inflation on a worldscale.

Thus, by the early 1970s, the world's greatest experiment in prosperity and equalization came to an end. World wealth would be transferred again and again by the rise in tin prices in 1973, in petroleum prices in 1973, in coffee prices in 1977, to name a few examples. But simple finiteness precluded that ever again would society be able to experience the quantum extensions of personal well-being of the 20th Century. One could mention a host of names and achievements, but high on the list would be Thomas Edison and the practical applications of inventiveness; Henry Ford and mass production; Alexander Fleming, penicillin and the dramatic drop in death rates. Any great adaptations of technology in the future - and certainly the necessities of the moment will force us into gigantic technical adaptations of everything from recombinant genes to solar and fusion energy - will go toward keeping the world from a major decline rather than toward world expansion.

This, by the way, is not the first example of growth curves cut off in full bloom. By all accounts the toppling of the civilizations of the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites and Pharaonic New Kingdom of Egypt around 1100 B.C. rudely chopped off one of the most blossoming graphs of expansion in mankind and economic production in all history. It led to the first great Dark Ages in recorded Mediterranean events. Some historican credit drought for the debacle, others the movement of sea peoples. Minoan Crete may have been done in by the eruption of the volcano of Santorini. But prosperity returned only when entirely new iron age societies such as classical Greece, the Hebrew kingdom and the Etruscans emerged after half a millennium.

Thirteen hundred and fifty years later, the whole Mediterranean, governed by Rome, experienced a similar demographic bloodletting. Edward Gibbon tells us that from A.D. 250 to 265 the plague raged in every province and city of the Empire, at one stretch killing off 5,000 persons a day in Rome. The antecedents were many: drought, war, misgovernment, rapine, famine and interruption of trade. When it was finished, half of the population of the Roman Empire was gone and cities like Alexandria were shells of their former selves. Change in the Wind

ONE'S SENSE of imminent shock in American and world history traces itself to the crisis in gold in 1970, the run on the dollar in 1971 and Nixon's New Economic Policy, the Arab oil embargo of 1973 leading to the tripling of prices of petroleum and doubling of prices of electricity, the cold winter of 1976 and the American-Chinese droughts of 1977. These are events not only in the newsworthy sense of the word, but markers of a world and American society on a road of rapid retreat from growth, into a retrenchment that is still hard to fathoms, and with a much greater awareness of the vicissitudes of nature.

The demographic accompaniments of this period have been charted for us by Lester Brown in a Worldwatch Institute paper on population trends and by a Population Reference Bureau paper on "Rural Renaissance in America." Brown's paper tells us that world population growth peaked about 1970 and, despite certain dramatic exception such as Egypt, began to decline in the face of growing hunger. The Population Reference Bureau indicates that in 1970 Americans began to beat a retreat from urbanism and growth. They gave birth to fewer babies and migrated not only to the South and West but from cities to all rural areas.

The anticipatory shudders of great change in the wind do not come solely from the demographic breezes blowing, but from the appearance of convergence in nearly all events.

Let us look with a historian's eye at contemporary examples of the accumulating paralysis of planning and administration of modern life owing to convergence. Even natural events, thought in the mid-19th Century to be under human management, are reintruding into the modern calculus in much the manner that they encroached upon the cities of Sumer of Egypt 5,000 years ago, when those cities began to worry about their supplies of food and materials.

Today we use our sophisticated technologies to fathom future weather for its effect upon our delicately balanced food equation. We also keep an eye on such rare phenomena as the ozone layer, the buffer for living things against cancer-producing ultraviolet rays. During the past two months, the ozone layer has "heated up" again as an item of news owing to impingements from three technologic forces. They are far removed from each other as the Concorde SST, the aerosol can and the newest defined menace - the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture.

Equally convergent and socially more urgent is the subject of energy. A new study of the dangers of nuclear power, prepared by three scientists of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., takes the most critical stand possible toward nuclear plants, now a fading energy resource for the United States. But its findings, not unexpectedly, are full of ironies. Not least is the fact that, weighed against the total spectrum of occupation hazards, population hazards, enviromental degradation and catastrophic hazards, both coal and hydroelectric power offer higher risks of death than does nuclear power. This is another way of saying that the uncalculated risks of dying in coal mine cave-ins or from miner's lung or from sulphur dioxide or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are not less, and are probably larger per capita, than the calculated risks from the processing and use of uranium in modern reactors.

What was significant about the study was the price that we pay for all modern sources of energy (as well as certain traditional ones). Like driving an automobile, conventional sources of energy are treated uncritically as burdens on human ingenuity and survival. Nuclear energy happens to stand out because of what Alvin Weinberg, former director of the Oak Ridge atomic laboratory, characterizes as "our Faustian bargain," the vigilance required for nuclear wastes over thousands of years (and, one might add, because of the question of who has access to plutonium in an age of nuclear proliferation).

Ozone and nuclear power are two threats to the stability and administration of contemporary civilzation that come under reasonably constant scientific scrutiny. But what about the broader web of society and politics? One can choose mutually impinging events almost at random from the daily paper and again demonstrating a geometrically mounting feedback:

Riots against President Sadat's regime in Egypt because of administered rises in prices.

Announcements that American military pensions now take $9 billion out of the military budget as contrasted with $1.2 billion in the early 1960s.

The renewed threat of default by the city of New York in its wages and salaries, a threat terminated only when, as one financier put it, the city hocked even "its kitchen stoves."

A concern that Washington Metro would default on its bonds.

Each of these seems to have been an isolated strand in American and international life until one looks at the cumulative web, showing that each issue raises mounting levies on the credit of the United States, whether private or public.

One must recall that just a year ago two of the big six banks of New York City were placed on the Federal Reserve watch list for over-extension of credits to the developing countries. As energy costs rose, the poorer countries were going into hock for some $40 billion each year for deficit financing; American schools, cities and counties were also feeling the strain of mounting energy costs.

Given our technology, American credit is seemingly limitless, until one estimates, as did Jack Anderson recently, that the toal of American obligations is now some $6.4 trillion, wrapped up in Social Security, veterans' payments, welfare and the like. It is a contingent debt, the calling of even a part of which would imperil the total fabric of American finance. Amputating the Earth's Wings

SCALE, magnitude, a very slippery balance of forces. A U.S. government with an estimated $6.4 trillion in contingent commitments. Military pensions at $9 billion a year. A drought over 60 per cent of the United States that could dwarf our capacity for disaster relief. Instability in Egypt and other Fourth World countries. Endemic water problems that blanket the West and that assure that even geologic water is now being irreparably exhausted. American imports of petroleum at $40 billion per year. An atmosphere threatened by coal, Concordes, aerosol cans and nitrogen fertilizers. Convergence on a scale perhaps unknown in history; but in form not unlike the convergence upon the Egypt of Ramses XI at the end of the New Kingdom, or the Rome of Diocletian in the closing days of the 3d Century A.D.

One aspect of the converging famines in energy comes down to us directly from the era of the Rameside pharaohs: deforestation of the earth's surface. First recorded when iron and glass became dominant materials in the Mediterranean about 1100 B.C., it led to the erosion of the Greek islands and the speading desert in North Africa and the Middle East.

Blame fire-using man rather than the goat for the world's first two crises in energy. One, just noted, encouraged the Romans to organize a metal-yielding imperium in forested Europe. The second, some 18 centuries later, forced the wood-short countries of western Europe, led by England, to organize an Industrial Revolution based upon coal and steam.

But the deforestation of the world has not stopped and, by conservative estimates, goes on at the rate of 14 acres a minute.

The facts are set forth in Erik P. Eckholm's "Losing Ground," a 1976 study of world biologic environments. No one can browse casually in these denuded terrains, any more than one can be lighthearted about Amazonia. To watch the erosion of the Black Sea coast as forests of beech disappear; to join an energy team in briefings in India or Indonesia on the rapine of the slopes of the Himalayas or of Kalimantan; to hear Africans describe their personal search for charcoal; or to see the shipments of charcoal leaving Somaliland for the Persian Gulf is to see disaster converging from all sides. Earth is indeed spaceship and we are cutting off its wings.

If the 1940s to the 1970s were a Hellenistic Golden Age (with merely the first symptoms of decadence and malaise), how much in the non-affluent '70s can we be said to have declined? The answer is not easy to give, simply because a great deal of our affluence was waste.

Our input into basic research has dropped by 40 per cent since the 1960s. Then again, a great majority of such research was spawned mainly for defense and for the space effort.

In a recent article the conservative economist Milton Friedman reminded us that the federal government now disposes of 40 per cent of America's gross national product. It is a figure which, as Friedman notes, puts us dangerously close to Chile and Britain on the road to authoritarianism.

A related symptom of decline has been our slowing growth in productivity, observed in 1974-1975 by economists Charles Kindleberger and Robert Gilpin. During the 1960s and '70s we no longer were a technologically creative society; like England, we had become more interested in consumption than production. The failure to act defensively on any major energy front in the three years since the Arab embargo of 1973-1974 is not simply a symptom of Watergate, but a sumptom of a federalized leadership incapable - at least until now - of setting priorities on even the most basic needs. But the same can be said of warnings by such climatologists as Reid Bryson that the termination of the golden years of weather of the mid-20th Century required us to think of stockpiling food and conserving water on a large-scale. Facing Alternatives

IN A THRESHOLD moment, weakness becomes strength if - and only if - it galvanizes a society to rapid innovation. The innovation, one must hasten to add, must fit within the old institutional frame of the society: methane, hydrogen, liquefied or gasified coal, or electric energy for a society geared to fluid energy: a new federalism - strong regional governments capable of tackling problems in terms of logical economic units, not arbitrary state borders - for a society geared to an old federalism. But innovation, not revolution. Total revolutions which tear down the old walls of society are almost always counterproductive.

Despite the objections of environmentalists to teachnologic fixes, one ingredient of the new era must be an industrial revolution that looks to other sources of energy than fossil fuels. We may have to buy time with unpalatable high technologies such as nuclear reactors, consolidated into nuclear parks in geologically stable areas such as Minnesota. But energy-conserving low technologies can help. New modes of building and insulating houses, small-scale production of food and fiber by householders, waste and water conservancy by individuals and communities, education and management through electronic systems, are all on the horizon of what are today called "appropriate technologies."

A plethora of new devices is waiting in the wings to take over as the engine of fossil fuels and contemporary materials runs down. The inventiveness of San Francisco residents in building means to recycle scarce water within their homes is but one example.

If new technologies are in the wings, waiting also is political change of a vast order, mainly toward a more authoritarian order, superimposed over a more diversified society. Given our energy and other pressing problems, the year 1980 is probably the cutoff date for serious progress toward a more conservationist and productive technical society - one geared to more widespread output by more persons in small units. After that, events will become less and less amenable to socio-technical persuasion and will require ever larger applications of political force.

Thresholds do not wait, especially those timed to exponential changes in resources. King Hubbert of the U.S. Geological Survey reminded us during the 1960s that American reserves of petroleum and natural gas would be consumed along a gaussian or bell curve. And consumed along such a curve they were, starting to run out in 1970 when he said they would. The threshold of the society as a whole is no more forgiving than that of the resources upon which it is based. That society which rises exponentially falls by the same gemoetrism - unless it is adapted to new organization as well as to new technologies.

For convergence is not simply complexity and interdependence in an ever more technologic planet. It is the multiplyingly deleterious feedback of institutions subjected to ever more overlapping impingements from malevolent forces. It belongs to an era of leveling of geometric growth, saturation of frontiers by men, animals and machines, mercantile competition for the pie of resources, autonomous technologies that defy control.

But it does not have to happen in this way. The most outstanding exception to the bell curve may be the moment of the birth of these United States in the late 18th Century, which say the convergence of at least four revolutionary movements.

Richard G. Wilkinson in his recent "Poverty and Progress" expressed the view that, under the pressure of population growth, exhaustion of forests, land shortgage and medieval inhibitions, 18th Century Europe had about run out its string.

What saved it was not simply the safety valve of migration to the American and Russian frontiers, but the opening of the new horizons of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions. The two choices of the day were expressed by that which happened in 1789 in an England shorn of its American colonies and in a France still ridden with medieval institutions. The British choice was a peaceful institutional and technologic passage through the threshold, called "Industrial Revolution." The French choice was a violent political attack upon the threshold, called "French Revolution."

Jimmy Carter has not overstated the contemporary challenge. Modern society rides largely upon fossil fuels. (In an era without horses, an acre of American corn requires 80 gallons of gasoline to grow and get to market.) Cheap energy has been the foundation of all our productive technologies. The threat of destructive feedback dwarfs that of any other material shortage in recorded history.

The specifics of Carter's energy program are not the issue here. But, as in the 18th Century, we have our choices. We can launch a quiet, disciplined national effort to deal with the basic challenges boldly - and with the help of new technologies - but within the framework of our institutions, carrying out a benevolent, peaceful revolution rivaling those of William Pitt the Younger or Franklin D. Roosevelt. Alternatively, we will have to utilize ever tougher political controls to administer ever scarcer resources and to restructure a society unaccustomed to privation. Failure to do one or the other will lead to the rapid obsolescence of our society or to civil-strife or both.