WE DON'T suppose you've got your 1978 or 1980 utility bills handy. Probably you feel, as most of us do, that those bills have been rising enormously over the past few years. And so, in dollar terms, they probably have. But if you had the bills, you might also see that you're using less electricity and natural gas than you used to, at least if you're typical of what now seems to be a national trend.

That is the implication, at least, of a recent Department of Energy report on household energy usage in 1978 and 1980: during that period, it says, not only businesses but households as well reduced their use of energy. No one can be sure whether this trend has continued--for one thing, it's difficult statistically to make precise comparisons--but the same incentives have been at work.

Only a few years ago many experts proclaimed these incentives wouldn't work, wouldn't reduce household energy use. Americans liked their energy just as they liked the gasoline-guzzling cars, the argument went, and they weren't going to give it up, no matter what the price. It was an attractive theory, and one that has been entirely disproved by events. Price incentives work: Americans are using less gasoline in their cars and less electricity and natural gas in their homes. We're reminded of what happened in Marin County, Calif., during a drought a few years back: householders, urged to conserve water, did such a good job of it that the water authorities, suffering from loss of revenues, urged them to use more.

There's a lesson here of even more general application, we think. In political discourse, Americans cling to every economic advantage they have managed to get with a rhetoric of fierce tenacity. But are we really so averse to change and inconvenience as we proclaim? A few years ago there was lurid talk about the horrors attendant on lower energy use. Now Americans get along with far less energy than the experts thought they could. It is a good guess that we can change--and improve--our lives more than anyone suspected, given the right incentives and a little political will.