As oil prices continue to drop, consumers like Dan Beck of Pasadena, Calif., know just what to do.

After four years of hauling his pool-cleaning gear in the back of a midget pickup truck, Beck traded in his fuel-efficient vehicle for a full-sized pickup. "I'm counting on OPEC staying fouled up," Beck told the Los Angeles Times.Those are frightening words for those who lived and drove during the fuel crunches of 1973 and 1979. For it was during those years that the power of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was at its peak. Thanks for the American penchant for fast, powerful - and inefficient - vehicles, OPEC held the country hostage to its demands for higher oil prices.

Still, from that experience, however unpleasant it may have been, came many good things: More fuel-efficient cars, more emphasis on domestic sources of fuel, and more fuel-conscious leaders.

But today, as the price of oil continues to drop (from $30 a barrel six months ago to the current $9), the country appears to be once again marching lockstep to the '70s beat of unrestrained consumerism.

The government has relaxed fuel economy standards, raised speed limits, downplayed non-nuclear energy research, and insisted alternative fuels compete in the marketplace where low oil prices spell certain doom. Consumers, too, are doing their part to revive the oil debacle of the 1970s. By purchasing larger cars, by keeping the thermostat at a comfy 72 degrees, and generally losing the determination to conserve, Americans are letting OPEC inch slowly back to its former oil market hegemony.

Of course, before OPEC could regain its stranglehold, Congress and the president would almost surely slap a new tax on gasoline, thus forcing consumers to return to a more conscientious attitude about a scarce resource.

But those who don't like taxes, those who would rather not be forced to do what they should do anyway, ought to think twice before reverting to old energy-wasting ways.