Poverty alleviation linked to agricultural intensification has been achieved in many regions but there is often only limited understanding of the impacts on ecological dynamics. A central need is to observe long term changes in regulating and supporting services as the basis for assessing the likelihood of sustainable agriculture or ecological collapse. We show how the analyses of 55 time-series of social, economic and ecological conditions can provide an evolutionary perspective for the modern Lower Yangtze River Basin region since the 1950s with powerful insights about the sustainability of modern ecosystem services. Increasing trends in provisioning ecosystem services within the region over the past 60years reflect economic growth and successful poverty alleviation but are paralleled by steep losses in a range of regulating ecosystem services mainly since the 1980s. Increasing connectedness across the social and ecological domains after 1985 points to a greater uniformity in the drivers of the rural economy. Regime shifts and heightened levels of variability since the 1970s in local ecosystem services indicate progressive loss of resilience across the region. Of special concern are water quality services that have already passed critical transitions in several areas. Viewed collectively, our results suggest that the regional social-ecological system passed a tipping point in the late 1970s and is now in a transient phase heading towards a new steady state. However, the long-term relationship between economic growth and ecological degradation shows no sign of decoupling as demanded by the need to reverse an unsustainable trajectory.