By 1990 or 2000, nuclear proliferation, population pressures, or a food-supply crisis could replace energy shortages as the prime challenge to Western democracies.
But whatever shape the next challenge takes, the future will be more survivable if today's governments heed the advice presented clearly and powerfully in ''Global Insecurity.''
The advice is two-pronged, calling on Western industrial democracies to:
* Coordinate national policies with international needs to avoid serious economic, political, and social consequences.
* Rapidly develop means ''for uncoupling economic growth from energy consumption.''
Daniel Yergin and his stable of 12 American, European, and Japanese energy experts argue both that the West needs continuing per capita economic growth and that energy shortages threaten to limit this growth. They forecast a future marked by ''either a moderately tight energy balance or a dangerously taut one.'' But even if a remarkable combination of research breakthroughs were to end the West's dependence on Mideast oil, recent energy shortages have caused so much damage that major policy changes are in order.
Under this book's bleak ''Scenario I,'' the West's industrialized oil-consuming nations will have only two-thirds as much oil to burn in 2000 as they used in 1978. Benign ''Scenario II'' still leaves the West with slightly less oil in 2000 than in 1978.
''Global Insecurity'' argues that the cheap energy supplies which built the modern-day United States, Europe, and Japan are gone forever. Periodic supply gluts and price dips are deceptive, luring consumers into complacency when they should be girding for the next energy shock. This short-term reaction is particularly visible in the United States. Dr. Yergin writes, ''The Reagan administration virtually eliminated conservation and solar budgets, greatly reduced support for synthetic fuels development, and eschewed planning for emergencies and disruptions.''
Viewing the current glut as a sign that the energy crisis is over could be a fatal mistake. Instead, ''Global Insecurity'' insists, the West must recognize that the energy crisis has simply shifted from causing gasoline lines to causing unemployment lines, high inflation, and protectionist trade policies.
Yergin estimates that the 1973-74 and 1979-80 oil price increases cost Western nations $1.2 trillion. This is his measure of the economic growth that would have taken place without the ''oil tax'' imposed by the Arab oil-producing states.
The grim side to the ''Global Insecurity'' picture is that future price increases could be far more devastating that the first two oil shocks. One reason: Each new shock hits a world system already weakened by previous shocks. Also, the West lays itself open to further damage if energy shortages trigger competition rather than a cooperative response to the energy challenge.
One key test is noted in two chapters focusing on the third world. The need for developing nations to increase their energy consumption at a time of world shortages will require greater concessions from richer nations for the benefit of all.
But ''Global Insecurity'' is not a doomsday forecast. Instead, its authors point to signs of progress. Both conservation and development of new energy sources have paid off. The industrial West has begun to uncouple economic growth from energy consumption, achieving a 21 percent real GNP growth rate from 1973 to 1981 despite the fact that it held growth in energy consumption to 5 percent. Further progress is possible if ''ingenuity and technology substitute for energy.''
Yergin and his colleagues present a choice. ''As the energy issue has beome more important and more complex, the risks of major disruptions have grown,'' Robert J. Lieber writes. ''Yet simultaneous pressures also exist toward coopertion among the major oil-consuming countries.''
One encouraging sign of cooperation is ''Global Insecurity'' itself, a major energy-crisis response jointly sponsored by the Atlantic Institute for International Affairs in Paris, the Harvard University Energy Security Program, and other research groups in Britain, West Germany, and Italy.