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.

INTRODUCTION

We live in an energy-intensive world. Coal has been mined and burned over an especially longue durée. There is little question among climate scientists and sociologists that an energy transition away from fossil fuels is absolutely urgent. Predominant analyses of energy, however, have not offered sufficient theoretical and political-economic insight into the persistence of coal and other fossil fuels. These analyses are hampered by overreliance on technological innovation, technocratic adjustments, and policy reforms. At the most base level, they reflect dominant ideologies of progress. In brief, they pay insufficient attention to materialist analysis.

The dominant narrative begins as follows. Coal powered the Industrial Revolution and the development of the capitalist world-economy beginning in the late 1700s (Arrighi 1994; Mathias 1969; Podobnik 2006). The British- and coal-dominated nineteenth century was replaced by the U.S.- and oil-dominated twentieth century (Arrighi 1994). The breakdown of U.S. hegemony and the rise of China in the twenty-first century might be expected, under this assumed model of linear change in hegemony and energy, to include a transition to a new energy system, perhaps even one based on renewable energy, as China is investing billions of dollars in solar and wind. These investments increased its renewable energy consumption (excluding hydroelectricity) from 3.5 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) in 2007 to 143.5 mtoe in 2018 (BP 2019:51) and hydroelectricity consumption from 109.8 mtoe to 272.1 mtoe over the same period (BP 2019:49). A number of recent analyses label China a green energy superpower in support of such a hypothesis (Jaffe 2018; Mathews and Huang 2018; Murtaugh 2017).

This apparent linear transition from old to new energy sources fits well with the expectations of a range of theoretical models due to their teleological assumptions of progress. Teleological arguments often harbor circular reasoning, explaining outcomes in terms of functions. In this article, we use teleology to refer to explanations based on final (ultimate) causes—that is, the inevitability of progress toward some goal. We do not analyze whether past and current energy practices are functional but how they are often viewed as steps—even necessary steps—toward better futures. Such assumptions of progress impose “a false logic on history and visions of the future” (Seamster and Ray 2018:317).

At the national level, modernization theory (Rostow 1990/1960) posited that progression through the stages of national economic development to developmental maturity would bring with it technological innovations, including the implementation of new energy systems. Ecological modernization (e.g., Mol and Sonnenfeld 2000) posits a similar progression to environmental maturity at the national level, with economic development leading to increased efficiency of resource use, less waste production, and transition to progressively less polluting energy sources, such as wind and solar. In both approaches, the more (eco-)modern nation-states are deemed to show the future to the less modern nation-states, thereby reiterating the assumed necessity of progressing through a series of steps that all nations must follow.

Other analytic models operating at an international or global level posit similar linear transitions from wood to coal to oil to renewable energy. Smil (2017) uses energy as a key (but not the only) explanatory factor in the long-term evolution of human civilization, seeking to bring together material, technological, and social processes into a linear narrative. Smil's work builds on a long tradition of analyses focused on long-term changes in energy use as a critical (or sometimes the critical) factor in social change. Richard Adams's (1975, 1982, 1988) efforts to bring energy and power together in an energetics framework linking natural and social processes similarly focused on this apparent long-term linear model of energetic evolution. Debeir, Deleage, and Hemery (1991) presented an earlier example of this linear energy transition model over the truly long term, with particular emphases on Chinese history and on nuclear power, the expected “next big thing” in energy in the mid-twentieth century. Podobnik's (2006) world-systems model similarly posits a global linear energy transition as the capitalist world-economy evolves.

In this article we offer a raw materialist account of coal's persistence, taking into account shifts in geography and scale within a world-systems framework that presumes a relational structure among core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral zones. In doing so, we unpack and reject the teleological assumptions of (eventual) transition that are found in most analyses of “energy transitions.” New historical materialism or, more bluntly, “raw materialism” as developed by Bunker and Ciccantell (2005, 2007), is vital to understanding the longue durée of coal. Building on the world-systems analysis of Wallerstein (1974, 1979), Chase-Dunn (1989), and Arrighi (1994), raw materialism examines the contradictory roles of raw material extraction, processing, and consumption in shaping the long-term evolution of the capitalist world-economy and its constituent national economies, as well as attendant socioeconomic and socio-ecological impacts. We stress the importance of control over and organization of raw materials sectors as a systemic characteristic of the operation of the capitalist world-system and its unequal outcomes, as well as struggles by less powerful states, firms, social groups, and classes for more favorable outcomes and more egalitarian and sustainable futures that will not be possible until after the demise of the capitalist world-system.

Coal is an excellent case in which to look at long-term world-systemic structures and processes related to energy production and use and at differentiation across space and time. Coal has been in use for centuries, and there is a fair amount of long-term data on this industry, enabling analysis of the role of this energy commodity across systemic cycles of accumulation (Arrighi 1994). In this article, we combine data from governmental sources such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and private sources such as British Petroleum (BP). Given the limitations of our data sources, which rely on national-level reporting agencies, it is challenging in a broad article to assess the relations between countries and corporations that are shaping the national trends. Importantly, we ground our analysis in the characteristics of coal itself (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005). In contrast to the vast majority of minerals, geologic and environmental processes over millions of years produced huge volumes of various types of coal in many locations around the globe; most countries have at least some coal in the ground. We also compare the role of coal in core economies, ascendant economies, and extractive peripheries. Building on Chase-Dunn et al.'s (2015) analytic model, particularly the emphasis on spatial processes and the role of hierarchical power structures, as well as earlier efforts to examine the role and impacts of energy use in the world-system (Givens 2017; Podobnik 2006; York 2016), our analysis makes two contributions to understanding the role of energy in the capitalist world-economy. First, changes in energy sources at the global scale are not inevitable; if one means replacement rather than addition of new energy sources, no such transitions have yet occurred (Sovacool 2016:212; York and Bell 2019). Over the very longue durée the absolute supply of coal is geologically finite, but we should not extrapolate from the energy transitions that have occurred at local and national scales. Second, these changes are inherently uneven across time and space in the world-system because of the material and social processes that create and reproduce inequalities in the capitalist world-economy, most notably transformative cases of rapid economic ascent and the economic and geopolitical competition and cooperation between ascendant economies and existing hegemons over time and across space.

Theoretically, various teleological models of energy and development bolster the assumption that energy transitions have followed and will continue to follow a linear process. We review these assumptions and related works in the next section of the paper. In the third section, we argue that the new historical or “raw” materialism perspective developed by Bunker and Ciccantell (2005) is a more powerful lens with which to examine the evolution of energy systems in the capitalist world-economy, and particularly coal's role in the global economy. The fourth section uses our theoretical model to analyze long-term changes in global energy use, while the fifth and sixth sections focus explicitly on coal, the ultimate “old economy” fuel, which nevertheless remains essential to the process of transformative economic ascent in the twenty-first century.

From a world-systems perspective, we argue that there is not a demise of coal—at least not yet. In fact, there is little structural reason for hope that use of coal will decline, despite the absolute urgency of moving beyond fossil-fuel energy because climate change is making the earth inhospitable to human life. The futures of China and India as nation-states aspiring to rise in the global hierarchy will be vital to the future trajectory of coal in the world-system. China's already impressive transformative ascent and India's potential ascent are restructuring the capitalist world-economy, largely driven by the old energy source, coal, both from within their borders and imported from other resource peripheries. So long as capitalist accumulation relies on uneven development and access to raw materials, there remains a structural imperative to rely on coal for energy.

TELEOLOGICAL MODELS OF ENERGY TRANSITION

The political economy of energy is riddled with teleological models of energy transition. Some focus on the national level (e.g. modernization theory, ecological modernization) and others on the international or global level (e.g., energetics, energy systems, and world-systems theory). As Seamster and Ray (2018:316) recently observed, “Debates about progress in general have a teleological bent, presuming that society is meliorative—gradually moving toward perfection—through incremental reforms or social action.” Most analyses of energy cannot escape the idea that human societies are improving and that such improvements include both increases in our energy use and changes in our sources of energy.

To be sure, human societies have mostly transcended the use of fire, and the last five to six centuries of capitalist development have expanded the scale of production exponentially as technologies were developed to exploit coal, then oil and gas, and then nuclear and renewable sources for power and electricity. On the other hand, a close look at the history of energy use demonstrates that prior sources of fuel have never been fully abandoned by humans (Greinera, York, and McGee 2018; Smil 2017; York 2012, 2016)—or by those seeking to accumulate capital (Malm 2016; Patel and Moore 2017). There is thus a tension between advocates and analysts of energy “transition” and critical scholars who have identified our current legacy of energy “addition” (York and Bell 2019).1

Yet, most if not all analyses of energy and society proceed as if complete energy transitions from one fuel to another were occurring. They are marred by several interrelated weaknesses. First, by adopting a teleology of progress, they rarely theorize progress itself and instead tend to assume it is linear (Seamster and Ray 2019:316). That is, progress toward “better” energy sources (whether better is defined as more productive and efficient or as more sustainable) is assumed to be inevitable, complete, and phased. Second, change is presumed to be gradual and path-dependent. How a sudden or revolutionary change might constitute a critical juncture and alter the path of incremental change is not addressed. Instead (third), historical accounts of change and forward-looking proposals to improve our current systems of energy rely on expert management or “naturally occurring” change.

In presenting a summary of the “mainstream” view of energy transition, Sovacool (2016) reiterates these linear assumptions as he unpacks the definitions, timing, and contextual specificity of transitions. “An energy transition,” he explains, “most broadly involves a change in an energy system, usually to a particular fuel source, technology, or prime mover (a device that converts energy into useful services, such as an automobile or television)” (203). Yet, as noted above, although the implication is that these changes are complete or total, the reality has been otherwise. Smil (2010) uses a threshold of 25% of national or global market share, while Grubler (2012, cited by Sovacool) puts it at 50%.

Certainly, Sovacool recognizes that transitions are generally recognized to be long and complex.2 He elaborates the mainstream view that they are “long, protracted affairs, often taking decades to centuries to occur” (202); “at the global scale, we see even longer timeframes” (205). In addition, transitions are often described as occurring in phases, from invention to technology transfer to spread and standardization, before they gain momentum. Such phases are “sequential rather than simultaneous” (204), which explains the long time period required. It also relates to the path dependencies that preclude rapid change.

Sovacool (2016) questioned this orthodoxy, arguing that rapid transitions do occur, at least at national (and smaller) scale. In a follow-up article, he and Geels reiterate that speed is possible in cases where “political will and business support may accelerate dynamics” (Sovacool and Geels 2016:232)—but acceleration is not the same as altering course. They also argue that “first mover” nations “contribute to learning processes, scale economies, articulation of positive discourses, and changes in businesses strategies” (235).

The teleological assumptions of all of this, however, are revealed in Sovacool's (2016) title, “How long will it take?” In other words, there is no question about whether there will be an energy transition. There is also little question about why energy transitions are so slow. Linear and phased transitions are expected. Change can occur, according to Sovacool, in two ways. First, when, as in the Netherlands' shift to natural gas, “the government strategically steer[s] it” (209). In general he holds that global “grand” transitions “unfold country by country and sector by sector” (Sovacool and Geels 2016:235), reiterating the teleology of stage theories rather than recognizing the relations of inequality and exploitation across countries and zones of extraction and zones of accumulation in the world. Cases of rapid transition, he asserts, were either “managed” or “naturally occurring” and attributable to technological and market price changes (Sovacool 2016:212). Despite asserting that transitions have occurred rapidly, such as in Ontario's complete move away from coal, he believes that most change will be “path dependent rather than revolutionary, cumulative rather than fully substitutive” (212).

Furthermore, he identifies four key conceptual approaches to understanding energy transitions that all concur about the long, protracted process: socio-technical transitions that focus on new technologies; ecological modernization theory that stresses regulation reform and governance; sociology and social practice theory with a focus on individual routines and habits; and political ecology. Unfortunately, while recognizing the contributions of critical and Marxist geographers to the political-ecology approach (e.g., David Harvey, Michael Watts, and Gavin Bridge), he characterizes their position as proclaiming “how neo-liberal ideology has further entrenched capitalism into our social and political spaces so that alternatives are rarely imagined let alone implemented” (205). In this way, he limits their contribution to the ideological side while ignoring the material side.

In sum, these approaches to energy transition overlook the relational (rather than phased) processes of change. Moreover, they overlook an analysis of social power based in the profitability of extraction, transport, and sale of energy commodities. These problems are replicated in most social theories of energy, including modernization, eco-modernization, energetics, energy systems, and surprisingly, even the world-systems perspective on which we base our analysis.3

In modernization theory, the linear progress is presumed to occur first in the most modern countries. Then, in stages, other countries are expected to adopt the new technologies, which spread through diffusion. Societies need energy to grow and modernize; the exact source of energy is unimportant. In classic expressions of this theory, such as Rostow's (1960) “non-communist manifesto,” the emphasis is merely on growth rates for “takeoff” and “sustained consumption.” No thought is given to the environment per se, but undeniably modernization theory assumes that becoming modern is equivalent to using more energy (Foster 2000; Stoner 2013; Urry 2010). This assumption has continued to hold sway even as sociologists recognize that well-being and energy consumption are not correlated (Dietz 2015; York 2016).

Interestingly, in the 1990 preface to the third edition of his classic work on modernization, Rostow himself considered environmental aspects such as the “strains on the physical environment that global industrialization and urbanization may impose” (xix). Not surprisingly given Rostow's staunch support for capitalist modernization, he concludes that “corrective action will depend on forehanded domestic and international public policy” (xxi). Thus Rostow's position returns to reformist policy approaches rather than more transformative solutions. Moreover, the other elements of teleology are deeply embedded in modernization theory. More “modern” (Western) countries demonstrate to the rest of the world the pathway they should and purportedly can follow, and such progress is to be managed by enlightened governmental elites.

Seemingly unaware of Rostow's late recognition of environmental limits, eco-modernization theory extended the modernization school of thought (Mol and Sonnenfeld 2000). The main idea of eco-modernizationists in relation to energy usage is that technological innovation can bring efficiencies that allow countries to both reach a high (modern) level of industrialization and avoid the negative “externalities” of earlier growth. The “optimism” of adherents to this perspective, also eagerly taken up by some policymakers and politicians, was reflected in the idea that it is “possible, through the development of new and integrated technologies, to reduce the consumption of raw materials, as well as the emissions of various pollutants, while at the same time creating innovative and competitive products” (Andersen and Massa 2000:337).

For energy use, including coal, this optimism has developed into the untenable idea that one can “decouple” energy consumption from economic growth (Breakthrough Institute 2015; but see also Jorgenson and Clark 2012). From this perspective, the ability of firms and states to copy technologies and policies from more advanced countries will allow them to avoid the worst of earlier processes of economic development by importing more environmentally friendly alternatives, linking national and international levels of analysis. Against modernization theory's assumption that developing countries must go through an old technology and old energy stage, eco-modernization allows for technological leapfrogging (e.g., to solar and wind power). However, it does not explain why such leapfrogging so rarely happens.

Other teleological models of energy transitions operate at a global level of analysis. One of the earliest and most ambitious theoretical efforts, Richard Adams's (1975, 1982, 1988) energetics model, brings together material and social power writ large to examine the long-term process of social evolution. In examining the capitalist world-economy, the focus of our paper, Adams (1988:xi) argues that “industrialization is the most recent social evolutionary energy expansion. … ‘[I]ndustrialization,’ the replacement of human energy with nonhuman energy, has dominated ‘development,’ and, as such, reflects profound evolutionary dynamics that stem from the energetic process.” While worrying that this evolution is “catapulting human society into some possibly final stages of evolution,” Adams's energetics theory views energy system change and sociocultural evolution as an inseparable and linear progression from simple to complex over the long term. Debeir, Deleage, and Hemery (1991) also are teleological, although a bit more nuanced, about a future energy transition. They believe “all energy systems are currently deteriorating” and that the transition “necessarily implies an overall transformation of society on a world scale. This transformation, whatever its duration and pace, will be global” (xv). Stages of progress via a series of national transitions are thereby rejected. Their historical focus on the energy system of the Chinese Empire is particularly interesting, as it examines the development and breakdown of a system that was far advanced in comparison with medieval Europe. In this long history, they at least reject the assumption that the West has always been the model of progress for the rest of the world.

One of the best-known recent efforts to use energy as a central explanatory factor (although not the sole such factor) is Smil's (2017) effort to bring together material, technological, and social processes to explain the very long-term evolution of energy systems from less to more powerful. Although he considers himself a transition skeptic who focuses on the very long time frames required, Smil eschews “rigid periodization” of the changing “prime movers” in “the long-term relationship between human accomplishments and dominant energy sources” (385). He points to the surprisingly rapid post-1990 Chinese economic ascent as exceptional. However, even Smil harbors an idea of inevitable transition, and, as we will show in this article, China's surprising ascent rests in large part on the same energy source that Great Britain's eighteenth-century economic ascent did: coal.

From our analytic perspective, current discussions of the pace of energy transitions provide useful insights into the growth of renewable energy production and use in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, especially in Europe and China. They also highlight the local consumer-based factors and national causes of transition processes, as well as the policy and social challenges involved in these transitions. These national-level analyses, however, cannot adequately address the global environmental problems, most notably climate change, nor the operation of the global coal commodity chain that was created and reproduced via world-systemic processes of economic ascent and competition and cooperation between ascendant economies and existing hegemons over the long term in the capitalist world-economy. Further, we argue that these analyses fail to consider broader world-systemic structures and truly long-term processes of socioeconomic change which may occur over centuries, or what world-systems theory refers to as the longue durée. Coal became a critical energy source for Europe three centuries ago, and the volume of coal used in the capitalist world-economy has grown exponentially since then. A series of new energy sources have been added to this global fuel mix, but, as we will show below, though these new sources added to and fueled capitalist growth and systemic expansion, coal remains a key energy source. “Energy transitions” might be better characterized as “energy diversifications,” or what Sovacool (2016:212) calls “cumulative rather than fully substitutive,” or what Podobnik (2006) labels “energy shifts.” Moreover, these energy transitions/diversifications/shifts are highly uneven across time and space in the capitalist world-economy.4

World-systems analysis offers an historical and structural alternative that addresses the weaknesses of teleological approaches to progress. Importantly, world-systems analysis does not consider either independent nation-states or the amorphous “world” to be the proper unit of analysis. Instead, nation-states are situated unequally within a hierarchical structure of remarkable stability over the longue durée (Karatasli 2017; Pascuiti and Payne 2018). The importance of technological innovation cannot be denied. For example, the steam engine was crucial both to resolving drainage problems in the mines and to the rapid expansion of coal use for industrial purposes in Great Britain, and Podobnik (2006) attributes the technological breakthrough to public investment in innovation in the face of competition. Once the breakthrough was achieved, there was interest in monopolizing the technology via patents until Britain's hegemonic position was secure. Subsequently, these technologies lubricated colonial expansion, because steam-powered gunboats were vital to dominance over China (22–30). Coal mining spread across the globe, but the benefits to human societies did not spread so evenly. It may be true, as Podobnik argues, that “if global conditions are right, fundamental transitions can occur in the foundations of the global energy system in a matter of decades” (68). That depiction, however, elides the difference between a fundamental transition that is vital to geopolitical domination and capital accumulation and a full (and equal) energy transition. It is more accurate to say that “successful” transitions in one part of the system depend on old sources of energy and old technologies being adopted in other, more peripheral parts of the system.

Therefore, even though Podobnik offers the most comprehensive world-systems analysis of energy, teleological assumptions slip in. Setting a threshold of an energy source that provides over 50 percent of the world's supplies, Podobnik defines an “energy shift” as “the processes whereby a new primary energy resource is harnessed for large-scale human consumption” (4). Based on this bar, he argues that the world-system has experienced several shifts in the main source of energy. Although he takes a global perspective and sets one of the higher thresholds, Podobnik still focuses on the speed of transition. On this point, he demonstrates that the global shifts have been increasingly rapid: the shift from wood to coal took a century to peak at 60 percent of global energy demand in 1913; the shift to oil as the predominant source of energy took only 60 years. Importantly, Podobnik argues that the transitions are not technical achievements based on the “inherent” properties of coal or oil, but are affected by geopolitical rivalries and hegemonic transitions.

Unfortunately, while illuminating systemic causal factors, even Podobnik elides the fundamental lack of complete energy transition and the unevenness of the shifts. In aiming to avoid sounding “defeatist” about contemporary possibilities for transition, he proclaims a bit too stridently that “entirely new systems of energy production, transportation, and consumption have repeatedly enveloped the world in a period of about fifty to sixty years” (3, emphasis added). As a result, his version of world-systems analysis of energy harbors teleology as well. While admitting that the shifts he analyzes have thus far been “relative, rather than absolute,” and attributing previous non-linear transitions to corporate dominance and also social conflict, he insists that “at some point in the future … an absolute shift will have to be achieved” (7). It is in this sense that the immanence and inevitability of teleological perspectives seeps into even this world-historical understanding of energy shifts.

The fascinating and frustrating aspect of energy transitions is that, while coal was vital to British hegemony and oil to U.S. hegemony, neither energy source has been abandoned and fully replaced. Moreover, core corporations and financial institutions continue to support the expansion of both. Although China is reportedly investing heavily in “alternative” wind and solar energy (Jaffe 2018; Mathews and Huang 2018; Murtaugh 2017), the question of whether it will fully transition is as uncertain as whether it will become the new global hegemon. In other words, an ascent is likely to be accompanied by a successful energy transition, although not for technical reasons or social preferences for clean energy so much as the need for rapidly ascending economies to meet their faster-growing needs for energy and for existing hegemons to maintain their economic and geopolitical control in the context of an evolving capitalist world-economy and the competition and cooperation with their existing and new rivals. We return to these interlinked questions of energy transition, economic ascent, and potential hegemonic transition in the conclusion.

In the following section, we present the key elements of our raw materialist world-systems theoretical model, which we will then use to re-examine the role of energy and coal in the world-economy.

MATTER, SPACE, AND THE RAW MATERIALISM OF DEVELOPMENT

Raw materialism intersects with structures of the world-system to help us understand the multiscalar dynamics of energy change and stability.5 Raw materialism is applied by paying close attention to specific characteristics of commodities, such as burning temperature and grades of coal, as well as capacities of ships, ports, and industrial processing, which enable and push expansion of scale. From world-systems analysis of the relatively stable structure of the world-economy, continued reliance on fossil-fuel-based energy systems is understandable.

Raw materialism works “outward” (Leitner 2007:98) from the bio- and geophysical mechanics of matter and space that are crucial to efforts to build “generative sectors” to ascend the world-economic hierarchy, most notably to challenge for or even achieve hegemonic status. Critically, it reflects the goal of understanding social relations of power and inequality in the capitalist world-economy, rather than creating a new model of “environmental determinism” that might claim or imply that the material characteristics of iron ore, coal, trees, and other natural resources determine social outcomes. Nonetheless, the key contribution of this theoretical model and research methodology lies precisely in its “raw materialism”: the goal is to understand the material bases of power and inequality in the capitalist world-economy by beginning from the first principles of chemistry, physics, geology, and hydrology.

Society and nature are dialectically intertwined and have been shaped by these biogeophysical processes and how human action has learned about, adapted to, and (to varying extents) reshaped natural processes. Raw materialism captures the “intertwined histories of struggles over raw materials and the development of capitalism” (Abramsky 2007). This nature–society nexus, which Foster (2000) and his colleagues (Foster, Clark, and York 2010; see also Longo, Clausen, and Clark 2015) examine via “rifts in the universal metabolism of nature” and Moore (2015) calls the “web of life,” is the central focus of both the theoretical model and the analytic method.

Using a raw materialist approach, Bunker and Ciccantell (2005, 2007) identified the key causal similarities across the five most spectacular cases of systemically transformative economic ascent over the past five centuries: Holland, Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and China. These rapidly growing economies—and with each hegemonic cycle the scale expands—faced a host of challenges at this nature–society nexus. To achieve a relative ascent, their states and firms needed to coordinate the physical characteristics and location in space and topography of the various raw material resources (actually or potentially) available with the physical characteristics and location in space and topography of the national territory.

Successful ascendant economies create and coordinate technological, organizational, and institutional innovations, particularly in heavy industry and transport, built on gaining access to secure sources, usually from outside their political jurisdiction, of the raw materials needed for capitalist expansion. In sum, they produce “generative sectors” (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005:86) that stimulate a broad range of technical skills and learning, along with formal institutions designed and funded to promote them, vast and diversified instrumental knowledge held by interdependent specialists about the rest of the world, financial institutions adapted to the requirements of large sunk costs in a variety of social and political contexts, specific formal and informal relations between firms, sectors, and states, and the legal distinctions between public and private and between different levels of public jurisdiction that facilitate extraction of raw materials.

Ironically, economies of scale and what Bunker and Ciccantell (2005) dubbed “diseconomies of space” are both at work in the dynamics of the raw materials sectors. Also, like other raw materials sectors, energy raw materials are subject to pre-human geological distribution. As we shall see below, coal is present in many places in the world, but its “available” supply is socially and politically constructed, so “available” supply varies. The raw materials used in the largest volumes present the greatest challenges to and the best opportunities for achieving economies of scale: the reduction of the cost of each unit produced that results from producing more units more rapidly and with fewer inputs of matter, energy, capital, and labor. These economies of scale, however, drive a contradictory increase in transport costs. The closest, cheapest, and most secure reserves of raw materials are rapidly depleted as the scale of production increases, forcing states and firms to seek more distant resources to supply rapidly growing industries. Moreover, over time the tension between the economies of scale and the diseconomies of space expand as innovations in transport reduce material, energy, and labor inputs per unit of output and innovations in production that control for heat, pressure, and chemical mixtures make each unit stronger and lighter. The result of these so-called technological “fixes” is, however, to generate expansions of scale, which expand the system of accumulation even further.

Generative sectors are not necessarily high-profit sectors, even though high-profit sectors are those that typically attract the most analytical attention (Arrighi 1994; O'Hearn 2001). Instead, generative sectors provide the material building blocks, cost reductions across many sectors to increase competitiveness, and patterns of state–sector–firm relations and other institutions, which combine to drive economic ascent. In each of the five cases of transformative economic ascent in the capitalist world-economy over the last five centuries, generative sectors in energy extraction and use drove the broader processes of economic ascent and systemic transformation. In Holland, technologies to harness wind power (windmills and more efficient cargo-carrying sailing ship design) and peat for burning powered sawmills, shipyards, manufacturing workshops, and the global trading fleet that supported Dutch finance, trading, and military power (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005; Mielants 2015; Smil 2017). Great Britain imported these Dutch technological and organizational innovations and combined them with large domestic reserves of coal and steam engine technology to power its industrial revolution and its military creation of a global empire (Arrighi 1994; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005), creating the Age of Coal. In turn, U.S. generative sectors in railroads and steel built on these British innovations and combined them with vast domestic reserves of coal and also petroleum to power U.S. industrial and military ascent to hegemonic status (Arrighi 1994; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005) in the twentieth-century Age of Petroleum. While Japan's initial economic ascent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century explicitly built on European and U.S. examples of industrialization, militarization, and domestic coal reserves, its renewed economic ascent after World War II rested on geopolitical cooperation with the U.S. hegemon to build a global sea-borne coal commodity chain to power its industries and cities and to produce steel (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005, 2007), using coal and, at least until the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power. The most recent case of (potentially) transformative economic ascent, China since its 1980 opening to foreign investment and trade, has been largely powered by coal. China became the world's largest producer, importer, and consumer of coal to power its industrialization and cities and to produce steel, in what is now the world's largest steel industry (Bunker and Ciccantell 2007), even as billions of dollars have been invested in renewable energy sources as well. In short, generative sectors powered by coal were and are essential to rapid, transformative processes of economic ascent in the capitalist world-economy in the twenty-first century, just as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The one thing not transformed in such ascents is energy.

There is a huge geographically manifested power differential in this overall dynamic. As core and ascendant powers extend the diseconomies of space to obtain energy raw materials, extractive peripheries are intentionally designed by the ascendant economy(ies) as appendages of their accumulation strategies, with little regard for either local “development” or sustainability—despite ideological protestations to the contrary (Bunker 1985; see also Gellert 2005). Indeed, various pressures push, rather relentlessly, toward local ecological degradation in these areas at the “beginning” of complex and lengthened global commodity chains (Ciccantell and Smith 2009). These extractive peripheries may be internal to an ascending economy (e.g., Appalachia and coal in the United States) or external to it (e.g., coal in Australia for Japan, and now China and India).

Even in recent years and even in relatively wealthy, highly developed nations with rich raw materials resources, such as Australia and Canada, firms and states in extractive regions continue to subsidize the economic ascent of other powers, namely Japan and more recently China (Bunker and Ciccantell 2007). The cost in strictly economic terms, ignoring all other forms of social and ecological costs, were likely far larger for other extractive peripheries. Yet, as the history of coal demonstrates, given the widespread geological distribution of coal deposits, new states and firms continue to aspire to join the realm of exporters while building local dreams of “development” and being recruited by more powerful states and firms. One result, as we will discuss below, is the creation and evolution of a global coal industry; coal remains a key element of economic ascent and the capitalist world-economy in the twenty-first century.

Energy over the Long Term in the Capitalist World-Economy

Examining energy over the long term from a world-system perspective sheds a different light on transitions often viewed through a national lens. To be sure, national data from a few cases do appear to support the transition assumptions of modernization theory and ecological modernization. As Table 1 shows, German coal consumption fell by more than half between 1980 and 2018 (from 488 to 214 million tons), while coal consumption in the U.K., the pioneer of the industrial coal industry, fell more than 90% from 123 million to 11 million tons.

TABLE 1.

World coal consumption (anthracite, bituminous, sub-bituminous, and lignite), in millions of tons, 1973 to 2018

WorldU.S.GermanyU.K.JapanChina (PRC)India
1973 3,094 506 478 133 82 414 77 
1980 3,756 650 488 123 88 626 107 
1990 4,637 816 451 106 116 1,050 221 
2000 4,701 966 238 59 154 1,290 357 
2010 7,358 950 231 51 187 3,445 683 
2015 7,710 719 238 37 192 3,789 889 
2017 7,638 641 224 14 188 3,708 938 
2018 (provisional) 7,721 614 214 11 186 3,745 985 
WorldU.S.GermanyU.K.JapanChina (PRC)India
1973 3,094 506 478 133 82 414 77 
1980 3,756 650 488 123 88 626 107 
1990 4,637 816 451 106 116 1,050 221 
2000 4,701 966 238 59 154 1,290 357 
2010 7,358 950 231 51 187 3,445 683 
2015 7,710 719 238 37 192 3,789 889 
2017 7,638 641 224 14 188 3,708 938 
2018 (provisional) 7,721 614 214 11 186 3,745 985 

Source: IEA (2019, Table 6 (II.11)).

Cursory use of global long-term data on energy in the world-economy may also appear to confirm a teleology of long-term change away from “old” energy sources as each new energy source grows exponentially. For example, coal production in Europe and the United States increased 20-fold, from less than 30 million metric tons in 1820 to more than 640 million tons in 1900 (Mitchell 1998a, 1998b). In the following century, world crude oil production grew almost 25-fold, from 149 million metric tons in 1925 to 3,644 million tons in 2000 (Darmstadter 1971; IEA 2017). In the first decades of the current century, global renewable energy consumption more than doubled, from 650.1 mtoe in 2000 to 1,510.1 mtoe in 2018; renewable energy consumption excluding the much older technology of hydroelectricity grew 11-fold, from 49.0 to 561.3 mtoe, during the same period (BP 2019).

However, on closer inspection, the material foundations of this model's progressive teleology are quite shaky. Examining world energy consumption by fuel type from 1925 to 1965 in millions of tons of coal equivalent, coal consumption (solid fuels) doubled. Oil (liquid fuels) grew far more rapidly, almost equaling the contribution of coal by 1965 (Figure 1). Natural gas consumption also grew rapidly, particularly from the late 1930s onward, while hydroelectricity played a much smaller role. Crucially, however, throughout this 40-year period of the Age of Petroleum, coal remained the single largest global energy source.

FIGURE 1.

World energy consumption by fuel source (in millions of tons of coal equivalent), 1925 to 1965

FIGURE 1.

World energy consumption by fuel source (in millions of tons of coal equivalent), 1925 to 1965

Oil overtook coal as the single largest energy source in the world during the 1960s. As a result, the standard measure of energy consumption changed to millions of tons of oil equivalent from the mid-1960s onward. From a position of near parity between coal and oil in 1965, oil consumption grew more quickly through 2000, but the rapid growth of coal consumption in China and, to a lesser extent, India led to total coal consumption nearly equaling total oil consumption by the 2010s (Figure 2). The most spectacular growth was that of natural gas consumption, which had nearly caught up with oil and coal by 2016, while renewable energy consumption (excluding hydroelectricity) grew rapidly in the past decade.

FIGURE 2.

World energy consumption by fuel source (in millions of tons of oil equivalent), 1965 to 2016

FIGURE 2.

World energy consumption by fuel source (in millions of tons of oil equivalent), 1965 to 2016

It is of profound significance that the most rapid growth in both figures is in total world energy consumption. This ongoing and exponential expansion in economic growth in the capitalist world-economy reflects the growth imperative of capitalism (Schnaiberg 1980) and is led by rapid economic development in the ascendant economies of the United States, Japan, China, and India that drove this overall expansion. Even if substitution of one energy source for another has occurred, it has not translated into slower growth in energy. No doubt this overall increase is impacted by the Jevons paradox—that increases in efficiency lead to higher overall demand (Foster, Clark, and York 2010:169–81). York (2016:267) has recently added the corollary that “decarbonizing the energy supply (i.e., reducing carbon emissions per unit of energy) may be associated with increased energy demand.”

In facing the historical reality of energy growth, examining the persistence of coal, the “old” source of energy, is instructive. Coal production and use are not limited to old sources and old technologies in poor and remote corners of the world but include new investments in new mines and new electricity plants. Spanning both the eras of oil and renewables, coal production continued to grow by a factor of 5.92 between 1925 and 2018, rising from 1,184 million tons in 1925 to 3,633 million tons in 2000 and 7,010 million tons in 2018 (Darmstadter 1971; IEA 2019). In fact, coal was the largest source of energy in the world until the 1960s, and in the United States until it rose to hegemonic prowess in the mid-twentieth century. Even in China, the fastest-growing major economy and the newest potential challenger to the hegemonic power of the United States in the early twenty-first century, coal use grew by a factor of 5.2 between 1980 and 2016, from 626 million tons to 3,243 million tons (IEA 2017), and it remains the single largest source of energy in China today. In short, the teleological model asserting the “death of coal” needs to be fundamentally re-examined.

Focusing on growth rates (Podobnik 2006) can also be misleading. A new source can grow very rapidly from a very small base, but volumes and shares of energy sources are more important over the long term, as Podobnik argues in the case of Great Britain's coal crisis. However, the story is really about adding new energy sources, not shifting to a new energy source or system. Coal certainly has a future, at least for the next several decades. To say so is not to take sides in a political debate on the deleterious environmental effects of coal. Demand for thermal coal, for example, was likely to exceed supply in the second half of 2018, particularly due to growth in demand in India, China, and other peripheral and semi-peripheral states, especially in Asia, where electricity production continues to be “locked in” to coal by recent and planned investments (Huo 2018). On the other hand, despite repeated efforts by the Trump administration to aid the U.S. coal industry (Plumer 2018), as Schlissel, Sanzillo, and Feaster (2018) argue, the U.S. coal market will continue to decline, no matter what policy changes are implemented. We focus explicitly on coal in the following sections.

THE MATERIALITY OF COAL IN THE CAPITALIST WORLD-ECONOMY

In conjunction with the unequal structure of the world-economy, the commodity-specific materiality of coal affects the geography of its production and consumption, as well as its range of uses. The material and social roles of coal over the last three centuries became fundamental elements of the evolution of the capitalist world-economy and long-term social change. Widespread availability of coal deposits made it possible for coal to be extracted for local consumption and/or for export to other areas in many locations. Although economically viable reserves are concentrated in five large coal-producing countries—China, the United States, India, Australia, and Russia had 72.4% of all proved recoverable reserves of hard coal as of 2015 (BP 2016:30)—coal extraction currently happens in more than 40 countries (BP 2018). Contrary to modernization theory's assumptions, using coal in peripheries is not mimicry of more “advanced” nations but essential to growth and accumulation. For example, Australia is a leading consumer of coal. At the same time, rapid growth of energy use from low energy per capita and diversification of energy types and geographical sources is more likely among core and rising powers.

In this raw materialist world-systems framework, coal is no longer just the “dirty rock that burns” that fueled Great Britain's Industrial Revolution. First and most broadly, coal did not disappear after Great Britain's economic ascent or after the first decades of U.S. ascent; it played a critical role in Japan's ascent after World War II and in China's ascent since the 1980s (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005, 2007). Second, despite its declining importance in the United States and much of Europe today, coal remains a critical component of economic growth in the two fastest-growing ascendant economies, China and India. In short, earlier materials and generative sectors do not disappear over the longue durée as systemic cycles of accumulation move forward—not even an energy source as old as coal.

Third, this long-term and continued critical role of coal has been fundamentally shaped by the material characteristics of coal. Most importantly, coal burns and produces heat and thereby power in various forms. This heat and the release of carbon from burning can smelt metal ores into forms more useful to humans (Harris 1988; Isard 1948; McGraw-Hill 1992:50; Pomeranz 2000; Wu 2015). All types of coal can be burned to generate electricity (coal used for this is termed thermal or steam coal). Different kinds of coal are more or less efficient in generating heat and electricity, but these efficiency differences do not affect the quality of the final product. It is relatively easy to switch coal suppliers within the same major type of coal without any significant alterations in plant equipment or operations. This relatively easy substitutability of thermal coals has fostered competition between firms and between coal-extracting countries and facilitated the globalization of the coal industry. In contrast, only a very limited range of bituminous coals with very particular qualities can be used to smelt iron ore and produce steel, because the coal quality directly affects the quality of the metal produced (Grainger and Gibson 1981:11–16,130–39; McGraw-Hill 1992:49–60). As a result, the substitutability of metallurgical coal from deposits in different locations is significantly more constrained.

A combination of material characteristics, such as variations in coal quality and topographies of extractive regions, and social processes, such as labor costs and technologies of extraction, have contributed to increases in coal reserves over time. Global reserves were reported as 572.7 billion metric tons in 1962 (Brubaker 1967:191) and 1,137 billion metric tons in 2016 (BP 2017), despite global coal extraction of more than 210 billion metric tons over these five decades. Global proven coal reserves are sufficient for approximately 140 years of reserves (IEA 2019:xviii–xix). Any worries about the exhaustion of the earth's coal resources before then are clearly unfounded; in geologic terms, there are many centuries' worth of “absolute supply” in the ground. Peak coal is a materially unfounded social claim.

We are not “blaming the victim” in emphasizing the central role of coal in the economic ascent of China and India; we are emphasizing success in the process of economic ascent. In fact, we are recognizing the essentiality of coal for many cases of rapid economic ascent, but with long-term environmental problems; there is a clear parallel between the killer fogs in London and Beijing's polluted air today. Having coal within the nation's borders and having the assistance of an existing hegemon have been the two formulas for success for Great Britain, the United States, Germany, France, Japan, and now China and India, even in the Age of Petroleum of the twentieth century. Coal is an excellent energy source with a long-established multitude of uses, including generating heat and electricity and smelting iron ore to produce steel. Coal can be easily stockpiled to reduce vulnerability to embargoes in times of conflict. Coal is irreplaceable for producing primary steel. The requirements for huge and growing volumes of coal make it a key locus of technological and organizational innovation in transport, since this challenge must be solved to keep growing. China and India had almost no choice about using coal to power their ascent, given a range of socio-material factors. Importantly, the greater domestic availability of coal than oil in both countries, as well as less price (and political) volatility in obtaining imported coal via established global commodity chains, supported steel production for infrastructure and broader processes of economic growth.

Understanding these material characteristics of coal, we can now analyze the evolution of coal over the long term in the capitalist world-economy.

COAL OVER THE LONG TERM IN THE CAPITALIST WORLD-ECONOMY

Putting together the broad national and global trends with the material characteristics, we can see how the material characteristics of coal set the conditions within which the pattern of use has evolved significantly over the last three centuries in the capitalist world-economy. In this section, we rely on the availability of over two centuries of historical data to examine the increased but uneven globalization of coal consumption. Over these 200 years of its importance as a capitalist commodity, coal production and consumption grew rapidly in both hegemons and rapidly ascending economies (Table 2), although data on consumption are not available over this long period.

TABLE 2.

World hard coal production (anthracite, bituminous, and sub-bituminous), in millions of metric tons, 1820 to 2018 (various years)

YearWorldU.K.FranceRussiaGermanyU.S.JapanChina
1820  22.3 1.1  1.3 0.3   
1830  30.5 1.9  1.8 0.8   
1840  42.6  3.2 2.2   
1850  62.5 4.4  5.3 7.6   
1860  87.9 8.3 0.3 13.6 18.2   
1870  115 13.3 0.7 26.4 37   
1880  149 19.4 3.3 47 72 0.9  
1890  185 26.1 6.0 70 143 2.6  
1900  229 33.4 16.2 109 245 7.4  
1910  269 38 25.4 153 455 15.7  
1920  233 25 6.7 108 595 29.3 21.3 
1925 1,184 247 47 15 146 526 32 24.3 
1929 1,324 262 54 37 177 550 34 25.4 
1938 1,207 231 47 115 186 355 49 28.8 
1940  228 41 140 184 462 56 44.3 
1947 1,370 204 45 77 71 570 27 14 
1950 1,435 220 51 95 129 397 39 43 
1960 1,991 198 56 173 148 392 58 397 
1970 2,208 147 38 207 118 550 41 354 
1973 2,237 132 26 221 104 530 25 417 
1980 2,806 122 20 246 95 710 18 620 
1990 3,531 93 11 238 77 854 8.3 1,051 
2000 3,633 31 3.8 153 37 895 1,231 
2010 6,512 18 0.3 226 15 925 3,316 
2016 6,482 292 605 3,243 
2017 6,739 408 639 3,262 
2018 (provisional) 7,101  633  
YearWorldU.K.FranceRussiaGermanyU.S.JapanChina
1820  22.3 1.1  1.3 0.3   
1830  30.5 1.9  1.8 0.8   
1840  42.6  3.2 2.2   
1850  62.5 4.4  5.3 7.6   
1860  87.9 8.3 0.3 13.6 18.2   
1870  115 13.3 0.7 26.4 37   
1880  149 19.4 3.3 47 72 0.9  
1890  185 26.1 6.0 70 143 2.6  
1900  229 33.4 16.2 109 245 7.4  
1910  269 38 25.4 153 455 15.7  
1920  233 25 6.7 108 595 29.3 21.3 
1925 1,184 247 47 15 146 526 32 24.3 
1929 1,324 262 54 37 177 550 34 25.4 
1938 1,207 231 47 115 186 355 49 28.8 
1940  228 41 140 184 462 56 44.3 
1947 1,370 204 45 77 71 570 27 14 
1950 1,435 220 51 95 129 397 39 43 
1960 1,991 198 56 173 148 392 58 397 
1970 2,208 147 38 207 118 550 41 354 
1973 2,237 132 26 221 104 530 25 417 
1980 2,806 122 20 246 95 710 18 620 
1990 3,531 93 11 238 77 854 8.3 1,051 
2000 3,633 31 3.8 153 37 895 1,231 
2010 6,512 18 0.3 226 15 925 3,316 
2016 6,482 292 605 3,243 
2017 6,739 408 639 3,262 
2018 (provisional) 7,101  633  

Source: IEA (2001, 2019) for 1947 to present; Mitchell (1998a, 1998b); Darmstadter (1971) for 1925, 1938; China and Russia 2017 from U.S. Energy Information Administration (https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/data/browser/).

Coal's contribution since the 1700s to labor productivity and to reduced turnover time and accelerated accumulation of capital has only been possible to the extent that coal was available in great volume at low prices and, as Malm (2016) has argued, in more locationally flexible form than water power. This combination of high volume and low value meant that coal deposits were the primary determinant of early industrial location, with iron and later steel processing plants, and factories that consumed iron and steel, being located near coal deposits, a nearly inviolable rule from the 1700s until the mid-twentieth century (Harris 1988; Isard 1948). Since the 1950s coal has become one of the most global industries in the world, with 1,373 million tons traded internationally in 2016 (IEA 2017). One of the heaviest, bulkiest, lowest-value and most localized industries became thoroughly transformed over a short period in the mid-twentieth century into one of the largest and most valuable global commodity chains, initially to solve a geopolitical problem for the United States after World War II: how to rebuild Japan's steel industry without relying on coal from China, a Cold War opponent.

While there were a few exceptions in the first half of the twentieth century to the old locational rule of locating processing plants near coal deposits, this rule began to change substantially during Japan's reindustrialization based on coal imported from the United States and Australia in the 1950s. Within two decades, global sourcing of ocean-borne coal supplies made the coastal steel mills in Japan far more competitive than the mills in the United States and Europe that followed the old locational pattern near coal reserves. For the coal and steel industries, bulk, weight, and transport are the keys to reducing production costs and making steel and other linked industries globally competitive. The globalization of the coal industry resulted directly from U.S.-led efforts to rebuild Japan after World War II as a geopolitical bulwark in Asia during the Cold War. The U.S. government supported efforts to expand coal production in Australia for export to Japan and helped the Japanese steel firms and the Japanese state create a new model of coastal steel mill and electric power locations that relied on imported metallurgical and steam coal governed by long-term contracts as key generative sectors driving Japan's renewed economic ascent. China has replicated this model in recent years (Bunker and Ciccantell 2007; Hogan 1999a, 1999b), with new coastal steel mills built with assistance from the Japanese steel industry serving as generative sectors for China's economic ascent (Ciccantell 2009). These geopolitical and economic changes since the mid-twentieth century have dramatically changed the scale and location of coal extraction and use. This globalization, however, might be better characterized as differentiated based in part on structural position in the world-system, since large price differentials have long existed, based on location and transport costs for equivalent qualities of coal.

The extraction of coal has expanded dramatically in recent decades. Despite growing international concern over the environmental unsustainability of fossil fuel use because of its central role in global climate change, hard coal production increased by 93% between 2000 and 2018. Much of this increase is due to coal extraction in China. In the 1980s, China became the world's largest coal producer and it now produces about half of the world's hard coal.6 Coal production and consumption are helping drive China's economic ascent in the twenty-first century, just as they helped maintain China's economic and geopolitical power in earlier eras.

Turning to consumption, world coal consumption increased by 150% over the past four and a half decades (Table 1), but this too is a very uneven process geographically. European consumption peaked in the 1990s, while U.S. consumption peaked in the 2000s and has since begun to decline sharply. However, the 10-fold increase in coal consumption in both China and India since 1973 drove a huge increase in global coal consumption. While the Chinese government has sought to curtail coal use in recent years because of pollution concerns and promoted rapid growth in renewable energy and nuclear power, it is not clear that coal consumption in China has peaked, and coal demand in India continues to grow. This increase, as mentioned above, indicates the success of economic ascent strategies in China and India. These strategies are based in the material characteristics of coal, including as transportable and storable energy, and also the continued essentiality of coal for generating ascent in the twenty-first century.

In contrast to a global transition story, per capita coal consumption also bifurcated dramatically beginning in the 1990s (Table 3). While China's per capita consumption now leads the world (per IEA data), given India's large population, its rising per capita consumption is also significant. In the OECD, which is mostly core countries but has added some semi-peripheral countries in recent decades, per capita consumption has fallen almost 20% since 1990. These data are worth disaggregating. In the United States, per capital coal consumption increased from 2.35 tons in 1973 to 3.43 tons in 2000, but has since fallen by 50%, to 1.66 tons in 2017. In West Germany, it was 7.71 tons per capita in 1973, but fell to 2.87 tons in 2000 and to 2.68 tons in 2017. In the most dramatic case of decline, per capita coal consumption in the U.K. fell from 2.38 tons in 1973 to 1 ton in 2000 and only 0.21 tons in 2017 (calculated from BP 2018). In contrast, per capita coal consumption has soared in China and India in the same period. Because the latter increases have been so dramatic, world per capita coal consumption has continued to increase: it was 28% higher in 2014 than in 1990. This increase has continued despite competition from other fuels (most notably natural gas and renewable sources) for electricity generation and efforts to reduce coal consumption due to concern over global warming.

TABLE 3.

World per capita coal consumption, in tons of coal equivalent per person

WorldOECDChinaIndia
1973 0.54 1.31 0.33 0.08 
1980 0.57 1.41 0.46 0.09 
1990 0.60 1.43 0.65 0.15 
2000 0.56 1.35 0.79 0.2 
2010 0.73 1.24 1.77 0.33 
2014 0.77 1.13 2.07 0.44 
WorldOECDChinaIndia
1973 0.54 1.31 0.33 0.08 
1980 0.57 1.41 0.46 0.09 
1990 0.60 1.43 0.65 0.15 
2000 0.56 1.35 0.79 0.2 
2010 0.73 1.24 1.77 0.33 
2014 0.77 1.13 2.07 0.44 

Source: IEA (2015).

In terms of trade flows, from the early 1300s onwards, England was the dominant force in world coal trade. It was not until the late 1800s that this situation changed as the United States gained a larger role in this trade and became the leading exporter for much of the post–World War II era (EIA 1983:3). World coal trade has increased even more rapidly than world coal extraction and consumption (Table 4), due to massive increases in the scale of bulk ships, which reduced the cost of transport; declining reserves and production in traditional coal-consuming countries in Europe and Japan (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005, 2007); and the rapid economic growth and coal consumption in China and India in recent years.

TABLE 4.

World hard coal trade, in millions of metric tons

YearVolume of trade
1960 132 
1970 167 
1980 263 
1990 400 
2000 594 
2010 1,076 
2017 1,349 
2018 (provisional) 1,404 
YearVolume of trade
1960 132 
1970 167 
1980 263 
1990 400 
2000 594 
2010 1,076 
2017 1,349 
2018 (provisional) 1,404 

Source: IEA (1982, 1992, 2001, 2019).

China has been following the Japanese model of coastal steel mill development as a key generative sector driving China's economic ascent and growing reliance on imported metallurgical and steam coal (Table 5 presents aggregate data on all coal). China has also been working to steal Japan's raw materials peripheries (Ciccantell 2009; Nayar 2004). China's hard coal imports remained relatively steady from the 1970s through 2000, but have since exploded, as have India's.

TABLE 5.

Coal imports, in millions of tons

ChinaIndia
1960 0.06 0.01 
1970 0.004 
1980 1.99 0.55 
1990 2.0 5.1 
2000 2.1 24.5 
2010 184 121 
2017 284 209 
2018 (provisional) 295 240 
ChinaIndia
1960 0.06 0.01 
1970 0.004 
1980 1.99 0.55 
1990 2.0 5.1 
2000 2.1 24.5 
2010 184 121 
2017 284 209 
2018 (provisional) 295 240 

Source: IEA (2001, 2019).

For Australia, Indonesia, Canada, and other coal-exporting countries, China's ascent and India's growth, and the integration of these coal peripheries into coal commodity chains linked to China and India, are increasingly making these extractive peripheries look like successful cases of stealing peripheries from earlier ascendants (Ciccantell 2009). These coal peripheries were created to supply Japan's economic ascent after World War II, but in the last two decades their coal exports have been increasingly redirected to the much faster-growing ascendant Chinese economy. Firm strategies and state policies in each of these extractive peripheries now focus on the relationship with China and how to maintain and increase exports to China, with the Japanese market a much less important concern because these peripheries have been effectively “stolen” to support Chinese ascent. For example, Indonesia exported 2.1 million tons of coking coal and 6.2 million tons of steam coal to Japan in 1995 (just under 5% of Japan's total coal imports that year) and had been exporting coal in smaller amounts to Japan since the mid-1980s (IEA 1999). In 2017, Indonesia exported 388.7 million tons of thermal coal (IEA 2018:IV.18), out of its total production of 461 million tons (Lee 2019b), with 112.8 million tons sent to China and 99.0 million tons to India (IEA 2019:IV.18).

The growth of Chinese steel, coal, and electricity production and consumption transformed the situation (low price and stagnant demand) of coal-producing firms and regions in the 1990s. Rapidly growing metallurgical coal consumption by China's steel industry transformed China from a metallurgical coal exporter to an importer in the early 2000s. Chinese coal imports soaked up excess coal capacity and stimulated a huge investment rush in Canada, Australia, and other coal mining regions (Morrison 2004). From a low of US$ 39.69 in 2000 CIF (delivered to) Japan (BP 2016), metallurgical coal contract prices rose to over US$ 100 per ton, and spot prices exceeded US$ 150 per ton in 2004 (Wailes 2004) and rose to US$ 229.12 CIF Japan in 2011. During the first decade and a half of the 2000s, coal firms reopened mines that had been closed because of uncompetitively high costs and invested in mining projects that were now economically attractive (Bunker and Ciccantell 2007; Ciccantell 2009; Hayes 2004; Morrison 2004; Wailes 2004). Metallurgical coal prices fell from their 2011 peak to US$ 89.40 CIF Japan in 2016 but recovered to US$ 141.35 in 2018 (BP 2019) and remained high in the first quarter of 2019; Canada's Teck had an average realized price of US$ 186 (Teck 2019:6). Steam coal prices followed a similar trajectory, rising from US$ 34.58 in 2000 CIF Japan to a peak of US$ 133.61 in 2011 and then falling to US$ 72.97 in 2016, but recovering to US$ 100.10 in 2018 (BP 2019). Prices remained high in the first quarter of 2019, with an average Japanese thermal coal reference price of US$ 94.75 (Kalb 2019). Closed coal mines in Australia are being reopened, as are mines in Canada and other coal-producing countries (Jasmamie 2016; Richardson 2016c, 2016d).

Despite the perceived death of coal in some locations, including serious concerns about the future of coal in Australia, the world's largest coal exporter (Cleary 2015), a number of coal firms have emerged from bankruptcy in more stable financial condition, investors have bought mines put up for sale by mining companies exiting the coal industry, and interest is growing in reopening closed mines and investing in new mines. However, many investment funds have retreated from funding new coal mines, despite continued high prices and demand, because of investor concerns over environmental impacts and potential regulatory and policy changes in some nations (Lee 2019a). Perhaps the single most controversial coal mine project in the world is the Carmichael Mine in Queensland, Australia, proposed by the Adani Group of India. This mine could eventually produce 60 million tons of thermal coal for export to Adani's coal-fired power plants in India (Richardson 2016a). The project has faced strong opposition in Australia over its environmental impacts, including potential damage to the Great Barrier Reef from port expansion. Some Australian banks have stated that they will not participate in financing the project, but the state government of Queensland and the federal government are working to remove obstacles to the mine's construction, including 2019 approval of a groundwater management plan that environmental groups had opposed (Cooper 2015; Reuters 2019; Richardson 2016b).

More generally, in terms of cost and sustainability, China's economic slowdown has softened demand and prices for coal, raising concerns about the long-term future of coal. Yet, such a downturn does not mean that a broader, more substantive transition is underway. To avoid teleological assumptions, one needs to distinguish short-term and long-term cycles. European demand has been falling for more than two decades, and U.S. demand has begun a sharp decline. However, the ready domestic availability of coal in many countries and the existence of a large global trading infrastructure, combined with fears about nuclear power in the post-Fukushima era and the irreplaceability of metallurgical coal for producing primary steel, mean that coal will continue to be consumed in very large quantities for many years to come. Recent investments in coal-fired power plants cannot be easily written off. Raw steel made with metallurgical coal has no substitute for many uses, so firms and states will remain tied to coal for at least the medium term, even with the efforts of some firms and states to promote renewable energy sources.

This is the essential lesson of taking a truly long-term view of energy systems: just as coal did not disappear when petroleum became the key energy source of the twentieth century, coal will not disappear in the twenty-first century, even if renewable energy grows at dramatic rates. The 11-fold increase between 2000 and 2018 in global renewable energy consumption (excluding hydroelectricity), cited earlier, took place at the same time that global coal consumption was doubling, oil consumption was growing, and natural gas consumption was increasing dramatically. The recent climate change accords may hasten the decline of coal in Europe and possibly the United States, but the key locations that shape the future of coal will remain China and India, depending on whether they continue their economic ascent. In terms of global environmental sustainability, unless energy use patterns change dramatically in China and India, efforts to address climate change are likely to fail because of the continued essentiality of coal for processes of economic ascent.

CONCLUSION: THE CONTINUED IMPORTANCE OF COAL AND NON-TELEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF TRANSITIONS

In this article, we have questioned the widespread teleology of energy progress that implies that the “death of coal” is not only desirable and imminent but also has historical precedent. Unfortunately, as we have demonstrated, the teleological assumptions of transition embedded in both national-level theories such as (eco-)modernization and global-level theories from energetics and civilizational analysis to some world-systems analyses are unfounded. Such teleological framing “limits sociology's explanatory power” (Seamster and Ray 2019:322). The implications of obsolescence and replacement that are imbued in the term “transition” need to be re-evaluated, because the advent of new sources of energy does not lead to the abandonment of earlier sources. While the twentieth century is often seen as the Age of Petroleum, and oil and natural gas production and consumption did rise dramatically, coal has remained of critical importance.

We have presented a broad sweep of the data on production, trade, and consumption to illuminate the raw materialism of historical and contemporary capitalist reliance on coal. The weight of the evidence presented here suggests that only geographically partial transitions have become more rapid. The U.K. has (almost) completely eliminated coal. In Canada, Ontario Province has also done so (Sovacool and Geels 2016). The United States' use has declined significantly. However, all of these have been possible only thanks to another fossil fuel, natural gas. Structurally, our data show that core countries have managed to reduce their consumption of coal in recent years but more peripheral countries, particularly in Asia, have increased it. Even when core Western states reduce their coal extraction and consumption, transnational companies based in these states continue to engage in coal mining investment and accumulation. Furthermore, our data have only scratched the surface of the unevenness of energy and the incompleteness of energy transition.

Further research is required to interrogate the ways in which both real material production and profitability drive continued use of fossil fuels, which are cheaply extracted but have high costs in extractive peripheries and for global climate. Such research needs to take careful account of the structurally uneven relations among nations in the world-system rather than relying on technical solutions, improved policies, and other forms of learning. By emphasizing the speed of an inevitable (global) transition, such reformist solutions do not address the severe power differentials in the world-system and the impact of rising hegemons. For example, against skeptics of rapid transition like Smil, Sovacool (2016:210) writes, “Although previous, historical transitions may have taken a great deal of time, the argument runs that we have learned a sufficient amount from them so that contemporary, or future, energy transitions can be expedited. Future transitions may also become a social or political priority in ways that previous transitions have not been.” Podobnik (2006:163) ends his book on energy shifts with the hope that “the transition … can be greatly accelerated” if new ascendants invest in renewables. But if the past is not a story of true or complete transition, then the urgent political question about how to transition requires more creativity than acceleration.

The penchant to see past transitions as successful and as models for the future needs to be tempered in world-systems analysis by attention to both the longue durée perspective and the structure of the world-system. To quote Seamster and Ray (2018) again, we need to focus our research on “concrete mechanisms that produce … stability and change, without imposing untenable assumptions of improvement” (316). The long historical vision enables us to appreciate that previous energy transitions have not been as deep and wide as the word “transition” implies. The nonlinear path of energy development in coal, shaped by the material characteristics of coal itself, counters teleological assumptions with the concrete realities of coal's persistence globally and its increased mining and use in some geographic areas. Coal is widespread and bulky, which initially made long-distance transport impossible, but it continues to be found—and “reserves” continue to increase—globally and in particular regions of the world. Moreover, socio-political factors that vary across nation-states and zones of the world-system are affecting a potential transition. Structurally, the data presented here show that although core countries have managed to reduce their consumption of coal in recent years, more peripheral countries, particularly in Asia, have increased it. Even when core Western states reduce their coal extraction and consumption, transnational companies based in these states continue to engage in coal mining investment and accumulation.

Much more than technologically optimistic claims of “accelerated decarbonization in the future” (Breakthrough Institute 2015:22), efforts by the Chinese government to promote renewable energy and natural gas use, close inefficient coal mines, and shutter heavily polluting coal-fired power plants and outdated steel mills have raised hopes in recent years for the potential for peak coal in China. However, our long-term world-systems analysis has shown that no source has ever actually peaked in the past century. Existing energy sources' growth may slow, and new sources may be added to the total fuel mix, but a true global peak and decline (let alone full substitution) has never happened. Energy systems evolve over time, but they become more complex and diverse rather than moving in toto away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy. The future need not repeat the past, but technical, policy, consumer-based, and environmental movement approaches do not help us to avoid the false teleological assumptions of progress. To be realistic about transitioning away from coal and all fossil fuels, we need to address the structural imperatives of capitalist growth and the uneven power structures of the world-system.

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.

NOTES

The authors would like to express their appreciation to Patricio Korzeniewicz, lead organizer of the 40th Annual Conference on the Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) in 2016 on “Global Commodity Chains, Social Inequalities and Social Movements” where the ideas herein were first presented and Denis O'Hearn, Jason Moore, and others who provided comments. Appreciation as well goes to the anonymous reviewers of this journal for pushing us to provide more clarity in our arguments.

1.

Our inclusion of “advocates” and “analysts” also alludes to the normative aspects of much work on energy transitions.

2.

Sovacool quotes Smil's (2012) quip that “energy sources, they grow up so … slowly.” However, since the quip comes in the title of a graphic in the article, it is not clear that Smil wrote it.

3.

In his 2014 lead article in the launching of the journal Energy Research & Social Science, Sovacool finds that among articles in three leading energy journals from 1999 to 2013, only 0.9 percent were from sociologists and 0.2 percent from historians.

4.

U.S. political resistance to this transition and the Trump administration's efforts to save coal are readily observable, but other examples of unevenness range from India's still-growing reliance on coal; the growth of shale oil and gas fracking in the United States, Argentina, and a few other locations while this technology meets strong resistance in other areas; and the slow adoption of renewable energy in many peripheral nations.

5.

This section of the paper is drawn from our earlier publication (Ciccantell and Gellert 2018). The initial formulation of this theoretical model in the late 1990s used the term “raw materialism,” which was eventually replaced by the less emphatic “new historical materialism.” This term reflects the intellectual foundation in world-systems theory and the classical political economy of Marx. In this paper we revert to “raw materialism” to re-emphasize the importance of matter and space to political economy.

6.

The Chinese coal industry dates back centuries (Wu 2015) and contributed to China's position as the world's largest and most powerful economy until the 1800s, a position to which China seems to be returning (Frank 1998).