The Energy Crises of 1973 and 1979 weren’t enough to scare America off our addiction to fossil fuels. Is it possible that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will do the trick?

Right now, everyone’s attention is focused on stopping the leak, cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, and bringing the perpetrators to justice. It’s difficult to imagine how architects can contribute to, or benefit from, this effort.

But restoring balance to the Gulf shouldn’t mean reverting to the pre-spill status quo, and that’s precisely where architects will prove essential. The spill has caused great suffering; it has also opened a window onto a new and improved national destiny.

As millions of gallons of crude belch into the Gulf, the American people face, arguably for the first time, an unmistakably negative consequence of our awful energy habits. With a bit of luck and a lot of lobbying, public outrage about the spill might translate into a political mandate and market demand for clean, renewable energy.

Society, the environment, the economy, and national security would all benefit from lowering our fossil fuel consumption, through public and private investment in smart planning, zero-energy buildings, mass transit, and high-speed rail. Just imagine the spark the profession would get from a complete overhaul of our nation’s infrastructure. Sound impossible? Not for the country that built the Transcontinental Railroad and the Interstate Highway System.

Architects elevated sustainability from a fringe movement to a de facto industry standard. The time has come to complete the task and make sustainability a de jure standard. A carbon-neutral, zero-energy built environment is an attainable goal, given the right market incentives and regulations at the national, state, and federal level.

The profession scored big on this front last month, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed the International Green Construction Code, a model set of governmental standards for sustainable building crafted by the AIA, ASTM, and other groups.

It remains, however, for the profession to once and for all prove the feasibility and reliability of green design. To accomplish this goal, architects and building owners and managers must get serious about building performance measurement and adopt an open-source attitude about the exchange of information.

For the profession to maintain its leadership position—to maintain its very viability—we must aggressively promote green policies and invest significant amounts of money and brainpower into proving the value of sustainable design. Because an oil spill is a terrible thing to waste.