Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, wrote poignantly of civilizations that had "paid the penalty of extinction for their failure to respond" to changing conditions that curtailed their food supply. If the United States and other non-communist states are to avoid "the penalty of extinction," we must urgently respond to changes that threaten our supply of energy, which to an industrial society is as vital as food.

In the years immediately following World War II, we Americans derived our energy from indigenous sources -- coal from our own soil and oil from our own wells. Western Europe was also larely self-sufficient, relying on its own coal and getting only 18 percent of its energy from imported fuel. But all that changed in the 1950s. With the discovery of vast new oil reservoirs in the Persian Gulf area promising an apparently unlimited supply of low-coast fuel, we recklessly expanded our energy consumption, substituting oil and natural gas for other, less convnient fuels, while the Western European nations systemtically transformed from their energy base from coal to oil.

In taking it for granted that the Perisan Gulf area would meet our fuel needs indefinitely, we relied on four assumptions.

The first was that the primitive oil-producing countries in that area would be neither willing nor able to use their oil production as political leverage. Though we were able to cope with half-hearted embargoes in 1956 and 1967 by increasing exports from Texas and Venezuela, we could no longer call on large reserve production when oil was cut off in 1973. Today an embargo could prove devastating.

The second assumption was that the Persian Gulf states and other Third World producers could not muster the disciplined bargaining power to increase oil prices. How could we have been so credulous?

The third assumption was that the oil-producing governments would remain sufficiently stable to avoid the political interruption of production. Of course, no one foresaw the shah's overthrow.

The fourth assumption was that the Persian Gulf could be kept outside the Soviet sphere of influence. Yet the Red Army's seizure of Afghanistan has now raised the nightmare question: how can we effectively prevent the Russians from gaining control of the Gulf's eastern littoral?

Thus the West's vital oil supplies are no longer secure. But how will we respond? Will we be like the Athenians who faced up to the challenge of changed conditions or the Mayans who did not? So far we have behaved like sleepwalkers. Though gnawing angrily at the energy problem for five years, we have not bitten into it, even though time is clearly not on our side. yNot only must we stop feckless yammering and drastically reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, we must prepare with equal urgency to meet the political and military realities that menace supplies during the adjustment period.

Whatever Russia's long-ranged objectives in mounting its massive Afghanistan invasion -- and we can only speculate about it -- Moscow would not have accepted such high political costs were it not playing for high stakes. Since the highest possible stakes would be dominance of the Perisan Gulf through which half the world's oil flows, we must act on the prudent hypothesis that, by seizing Afghanistan, the Soviets are positioning themselves to pick up the pieces of an Iranian nation sliding inexorably toward ethnic fragmentation, coups and chaos.

To keep brutal Soviet hands off the West's coronary artery we must urgently rebuild our military competence and establish an effective presence in the area. We must reinstate the draft because our volunteer army is in no shape for a serious struggle, rapidly expand our airlift and naval strength, establish a permanent task force in the Indian Ocean with Marines in place, and pre-position supplies. For that to be effective -- or even possible -- we must repair our shaky political relations in the area, since we cannot defend the eastern shore of the Gulf without the full cooperation of the Arab states on the western shore.

That means we can no longer doltishly ignore the prime political reality of the Palestinian issue. So far we have persistently approached the Middle Problem from the wrong side, spending enormous political capital to settle the Israeli-Egyptian quarrel, which has little to do with oil, while in the process inflaming the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which critically affects our relations with oil-producing countries. But we cannot relistically expect those Arab nations to risk close indentification with us by giving us bases on their soil or cooperating in military planning while we continue to subsidize Israeli colonialism on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and condone by inaction the Begin government's cynical effort to absorb those areas. Let there be no mistake about it: so long as we delay a frontal attack on the Palestinian issue, we are alienating the whole Moslem world, as our shattered embassies have demonstrated.

"Elam, Ninevah, Babylon," wrote Paul Valery, "were very vague and beautiful names, and the total ruin of these worlds had as little meaning for us as their very existence. But France, England and Russia -- these will also be beautiful names . . . . We see now that the abyss of history is large enough for everyone. We sense now that a civilization is just as fragile as a life."

Let us paste that on the wall and ponder it each morning.