KING CANUTE took his throne to the sea's edge to demonstrate to his courtiers that the tide would not turn back at his command. According to reports, the administration has also, though with less flair, arrived at a truth. It has conceded that the American people cannot be persuaded to forsake their automobiles, since they have chosen what the secretary of transportation refers to interestingly as "personal travel."

It has always seemed to me absurd to think that any appreciable saving of energy might be achieved in America by delcaring the moral equivalent of war on the automobile, for the car is not just an addition to American life but a reflection of the physical environment of the continent and of the long historical response to it. To talk of "personal travel" is a mere euphemism; little about it is genuinely personal at all. But if the phrase has only a tenuous connection with reality, it has as strong a connection with metaphor as "the right to bear arms."

From the fact that he owns his car, that it is parked in his driveway, clearly a part of his home, there for him to drive when he wants, to wherever he wishes, at his haste or his leisure, the motorist makes one more leap. He begins to believe that he owns also the freeways and the streets. By and large the American motorist expects to break the law when he drives, because it is written indelibly into his code that nothing should be allowed to interfere with the right to personal travel.

The owner of a private plane does not try to beat the traffic controller, in the way in which the motorist seems bound to try to beat the traffic cop; neither does he think that he may park his plane at the edge of any runway, in the way in which the motorist assumes a right to litter a city street with his vehicle. Personal travel is in fact a euphemism for self-legitimized lawlessness.

Indeed I have heard an American sociologist argue that it was the automobile that first turned the American middle class into criminals. The middle class used to regard the law and its agents as the protectors of themselves and their property, and there was rarely an occasion in their daily comings and goings to run foul of the law. But suddenly with the advent of the car they found that they were likely to commit all kinds of offenses, and for the first time the middle class perceived the law and its agents as also pursuers and prosecutors of them. Perhaps few changes of attitude in modern socieity have been so profound.

So let us agree that energy is not to be saved in America by a curtailment of personal travel. What, then, is to be done about the fact that in 1977 the United States used energy equivalent to 1.85 billion metric tons of oil whereas the whole of Western Europe, with a population half as large again, used only 1.28 billion metric tons? What acceptable reason is there for the fact that the per capita consumption of energy in the United States is more than double that in as advanced and active societies as Britain and West Germany? We must turn away from the car to find where the saving can be made.

A clue was given one day by an English friend as he sat in my home here, which seemed to me as quiet and peaceful as one could wish, until he burst forth with the proclamation that he could not bear to live in such noise. "Something is always turning itself off or on in an American home," he said, and I realized how right he was and how used I have grown to it all: We listened for 10 minutes, and the noise was hard to believe. Try it any day in the average home in America. As the air conditioner switches itself off, the refrigerator is probably starting into action. When it has throbbed to bring itself down to a much lower temperature than is necessary, the diswasher will still be ticking and clicking its way through the rest of its cycle. When it seems that quiet has at last descended on the kitchen, from somewhere else in the house comes the sound of the washing machine as it begins its own cycle, which means that even when sucking and gurgling and spewing and rinsing are done, the dryer will follow with its whirring and thumping.

Winter and summer, there is a constant hum of energy being burned in the American home; night and day, you have only to stand still to hear how continual it is. Yet this is only the background, and takes no account of the gadgets. These are not only in the kitchen, where they go on multiplying, but are all over the house. Does a man dry his hair with a towel any more? No! He has been persuaded that he needs a blow-dryer.

An accumulation of bad habits is encouraged. I have said that refrigerators in America are kept at a much lower temperature than is necessary. They are also usually much larger than is necessary, as my compatriot, Michael Leapmann, has pointed out, partly because Americans keep foods in them that do not need to be kept there. One of the most persistent sounds from the American kitchen is of the refrigerator door being opened and shut, and each time the polar air rushes out as the warm air rushes in to displace it.

The American refrigerator is among other things a storage place for junk food, which again does not need to be kept there, and American children and youths hang on its open door many times a day, making up their minds what they want. When someone is preparing a meal in America, the refrigerator is constantly being opened to take out and return each item individually, many of which again do not need to be kept there.

The cooling of unnecessary space in the refrigerator is matched by the heating of unnecessary space in the oven. Michael Leapmann in his criticism of the size of the American oven fails only to point out that rarely does the cooking in most American homes today really call for an oven at all. Yet a space of some eight cubic feet will be heated to warm up a pizza which has already used energy by being bought and having to be kept frozen. If one is ready to burn so much energy to cool or heat so much space of one's kitchen, why not indulge in the real madness of heating the space of one's own swimming pool?

Not even in California is a swimming pool used often enough by the average family to justify the enormous expenditure of the nation's energy on its upkeep, for it is not justification enough to say that it is pleasant to have the ppol there when one feels like taking a dip in it. No one is justified in maintaining a private pool all day and all night so that it may be used for perhaps half an hour once during the early evening.

But if the opportunity is there to use energy, unheralded cooling or heating a space, Americans seem to feel bound not to neglect it. Air conditioning and central heating ought not to be used to avoid even the slightest discomfort. Americans must be the first and still the only people to think that they should never sweat in their homes in summer or shiver in them in winter.

But the most curious fact in all of this is that Americans increasingly use external sources of energy to do what they might equally well do for themselves, and so increasingly they have to use still more external energy in order to obtain the exercise which they ought naturally to be enjoying in the normal occupations of the day. Executives take the elevator to the athletic club; women who no longer chop any vegetable by hand go to health spas to tone up their muscles; children are whisked by bus to a gymnasium.

The more one pursues the question, the deeper it seems to press. The American people may be the first to make a complete dissociation between living and leisure, regarding it as wrong to have to make any physical effort in order to live, but quite right to compensate by straining themselves in exercise. I am guilty myself by using an electric typewriter, which a doctor the other day said was yet one more way of depriving ourselves of exercise in the course of our work, but at least I chop my own vegetables. With a knife on a board.

With the point of the knife held down as a fulcrum on the board, it is concentrated physical effort, it is a skill, it is always thoroughly enjoyable, and I can probably chop a leaf vegetable very fine as quickly as any. If I left this to an electric gadget, I would have to take my fingers jogging; and even to a European who is used to the country, this is very much the state to which America has come. This is its energy crisis; it is also its exercise crisis. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Auth in The Philadelphia Inquirer