Predominant analyses of energy offer insufficient theoretical and political-economic insight into the persistence of coal and other fossil fuels. The dominant narrative of coal powering the Industrial Revolution, and Great Britain's world dominance in the nineteenth century giving way to a U.S.- and oil-dominated twentieth century, is marred by teleological assumptions. The key assumption that a complete energy “transition” will occur leads some to conceive of a renewable-energy-dominated twenty-first century led by China. After critiquing the teleological assumptions of modernization, ecological modernization, energetics, and even world-systems analysis of energy “transition,” this paper offers a world-systems perspective on the “raw” materialism of coal. Examining the material characteristics of coal and the unequal structure of the world-economy, the paper uses long-term data from governmental and private sources to reveal the lack of transition as new sources of energy are added. The increases in coal consumption in China and India as they have ascended in the capitalist world-economy have more than offset the leveling-off and decline in some core nations. A true global peak and decline (let alone full substitution) in energy generally and coal specifically has never happened. The future need not repeat the past, but technical, policy, and movement approaches will not get far without addressing the structural imperatives of capitalist growth and the uneven power structures and processes of long-term change of the world-system.

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