What would you call people who have had 17 years to think about it and still rely on imported oil from unreliable places to run their airplanes, factories, furnaces and 5.0-liter Mustangs?

Shortsighted? Undisciplined? Self-indulgent? Stupid?How about realistic, cost-conscious, adaptable and better off in the long run?

As the United States confronts yet another disruptive oil drama in the Middle East, the country's growing dependence on oil from other countries has struck many Americans as embarrassing proof that the nation can neither control its appetites nor set policies ensuring that most of America's oil comes from right here at home.

But many energy economists say that just because events in the Persian Gulf are affecting U.S. oil supplies again, as they have intermittently since the oil embargo in 1973, there is no need for hand-wringing and recriminations.

Those analysts argue that the government, U.S. industry and the American people have handled the oil situation in the past decade or so pretty well - not by developing a comprehensive energy policy to hold down imports but by actively avoiding that course and responding instead to the realities of the changing world energy marketplace by using energy more efficiently.

Three of those realities are paramount:

- The world price of oil has been very low since the mid-1980s, so foreign oil has been a bargain.

- The world price isn't high enough to cover the costs of getting most of America's untapped oil out of the ground, so U.S. oil production has gone down.

- The only way to increase domestic production and replace some of that imported oil would be to ignore the world price and force up the effective price of oil in the United States, either by tax changes, tariffs on foreign oil or import quotas. And that necessarily huge and enduring increase in U.S. energy costs, say the economists, could do more damage to the economy than the sort of disruption of foreign supply it was designed to combat.

In short, says Washington, D.C., energy consultant Vahan Zanoyan, "it doesn't make sense to argue to produce (more oil) in the United States even though it costs twice as much."

Meanwhile, while the government was studiously not doing anything, the country was continuing to conserve fuel and shift to less expensive kinds of energy in industry.

Today, despite having more people and more cars on the road, the United States is still burning less oil than it did in 1980.

Thomas Feiler, a Cambridge Energy analyst, says: "There have been some real efficiencies gained since the shocks of the 1970s. Airlines are 50 percent more efficient, automobiles 30 percent, refrigerators 20 percent. The problem is that those efficiency gains have leveled off."

A reversal of that trend is one of the outcomes that energy specialists are virtually unanimous in predicting: America's proven ability to practice energy conservation will be revitalized.

Some of that new tendency to conserve could be a natural result of higher oil prices if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's incursion in Kuwait continues to disrupt Middle East oil flows. But Dan Dreyfus of the Gas Research Institute notes another important incentive working as well:

"Even before this happened, this administration had seized on conservation as the main answer to environmental questions. Now there is an international security issue that's been lying dormant for 10 years."

That combination of energy concerns and clean-air issues could produce a powerful new wave of energy efficiency that, among all the unpredictable impacts of Iraq's assault in the Arabian Peninsula, could turn out to be Saddam's most important legacy to the United States.